Tuesday, July 30, 2019

My Role in Watergate

In 1972, I lived in Washington, DC. I was 12. I had finished 6th grade and had a Washington Post paper route. I had long hair and was complaining about President Nixon and the Vietnam War. My dad suggested that I volunteer for the George McGovern presidential campaign.
Kier Strejcek, age 12
Me in 1972
He drove me to the downtown headquarters on K Street one August weekend, and they put me to work stuffing envelopes. I continued to go there on my own, taking the bus there and back. I don’t remember how often I did this, but I continued after school started.

I don’t know if they were starved for workers, or if I was a particularly good at my work, but they increased my responsibilities. My next assignment was to look through the daily papers, cut out any articles relating to McGovern, and add them to a scrapbook. Then I would take the scrapbook upstairs to Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Lawrence O’Brien’s office.

McGovern buttons
Some of my souvenirs from the McGovern campaign. 
I was rewarded with buttons and posters. My favorite was a caricature of Richard Nixon standing on a soap box saying, “Those who have had a chance for four years and could not produce peace should not be given another chance,” dated October 9, 1968. At that time, he was running against Hubert Humphrey, and won. The joke was that now it was four years later, and Nixon was still president, still at war in Vietnam.

Poster: Those who have had a chance for four years and could not produce peace should not be given another chance

The campaign asked if I would work at the DNC headquarters, which were in – yes – the Watergate office building. The campaign would shuttle me over there from K Street, which was key, because it wasn’t easily accessible by bus. 

The infamous break-in had already happened in June. On my first day there, as we walked into the 6th floor office, my escort told me that the door we were walking through was the one that was taped open by the burglars, who had been caught red-handed. It had not yet developed into the scandal that would cause Nixon to resign two years later.

At the DNC, I worked in a room adjacent to an audio booth of a recording studio. We had a rack of audio tapes, like 8-track tapes, of recent McGovern appearances. We used what were very high-tech telephones at the time. They had a slot for a thick, credit-card-sized plastic punch card which would auto-dial the number of a radio station news desk. I would pick up the receiver, put a card in the slot, and wait for someone to answer. I would look at the day’s cheat sheet and say, “this is the Democratic National Committee, I have a tape of George McGovern speaking at some place. Are you interested?” They might say “No” or ask about its content or length. If they wanted it, they would do something with their phone, and I would push the tape into a player.

Information packet given to DNC radio volunteers.
At some point, there was a thank-you garden party at the Bethesda, Maryland home of McGovern’s running mate. Sargent Shriver was brother-in-law of the late JFK, married to his sister Eunice. Local volunteers, including me, were shuttled to it. I don’t recall seeing McGovern or Shriver there, but I might have met Maria Shriver, who was 4 years older than me. She was not yet a TV reporter or married to Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course. 

Meanwhile, I was adjusting to the Junior High school experience. Instead of one teacher per grade, I had different teachers for different subjects. One of my favorite teachers was for Social Studies, coincidentally named Mr. Nixon. Delbert Nixon, no relation to the president, was an average height, middle-aged African-American man with short hair and a mustache. 

As we neared the election, Mr. Nixon began to set up glass cases in the hallway near his classroom. On either side of the hall, one case would feature Nixon and the other McGovern. After class one day, I offered that I was working for McGovern and could get some campaign paraphernalia for the display. He drove us after school to the K Street HQ and we picked out some things, including my favorite poster. 
Another souvenir from the campaign.
By the time of the election, it was a foregone conclusion that Nixon would win. McGovern had lost too much ground back in August when he switched running mates from Thomas Eagleton, who had secretly undergone electro-shock therapy and was taking Thorazine, to Sargent Shriver. But we would only learn later that the Nixon "dirty tricks" campaign had earlier helped torpedo Ed Muskie’s campaign, and that the "White House Plumbers" had bugged the DNC months before the Watergate burglary. Nixon did not want to go against Muskie. 

Woodward and Bernstein of The Washington Post revealed some of this before the election, but the “smoking gun” White House tape would not emerge until later. Meanwhile, McGovern was portrayed as the “acid, amnesty & abortion” candidate. Nixon won 60% of the popular vote, and McGovern only carried DC and Massachusetts in the Electoral College.
George McGovern from 1972 poster, by Gary Yanker,
courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division.
Ten years later, I was a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston. A Political Science major, I learned that McGovern would be teaching a class. At first, we were told that it would be an small upper-level seminar, which was great. But demand was much higher, and “C-41 U.S. Foreign Policy” ended up being in the huge Tech Auditorium. After class, there were always students hanging around, asking questions. I really wanted to tell him that I had worked for him against Nixon. I eventually did, and he was quite gracious. I ended up with a B in the class. 

In 1984, McGovern decided to throw his hat into the ring again, but he didn’t get far in the primary. That’s just as well, because the Mondale-Ferraro ticket eventually lost to the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign in an even bigger landslide than in 1972. But McGovern was on the ballot for the 1984 Illinois democratic primary. I was old enough to vote this time, so I voted for him. 

Afterword: In 1972, I did not know that McGovern, whose father was a Methodist minister, had studied at Garrett Theological Seminary, on the Evanston Northwestern University campus in the late 1940s. He was a student minister for a time, but was never ordained, instead ultimately receiving an M.A. and a Ph.D. in History from NU. As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I came across an interesting Bible verse. I was not searching for a quote, but happened to read this, which seemed strangely appropriate. From the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8, verse 3:

And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.


  1. A very enjoyable reminiscence. I too worked for McGovern as a 12-year-old, and ended up on the front page of the college newspaper because Bobby Shriver stopped by the campaign office, and I was standing next to him when the photo was taken.

  2. Great post. I met mcGovern at a fancy hotel in Chicago for a fundraiser. I was 11 I think. Phil Ochs was the entertainer for the evening. Our friend took us backstage and introduced me to Phil. I asked him if he would play “outside of a small circle of friends” a song he had written. He was shocked that I knew it and said he didn’t think he could remember all of the lyrics. He went out onstage and repeated the encounter to the crowd and then stumbled through the song to everyone’s delight. I asked McGovern for his autograph and we put it in a framed picture of a peace poster in our living room. Love the posts Kier, hope all is well!

  3. Fascinating Kier (& Neil and Ronny!) and a cute 12 yo too.
    Thanks for the continued shares...You Rock Man!