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The Passing of Hillary’s 1960s Mentor

The obits have ignored their ties, but this former president of the SDS who saved her from Goldwater conservatism.

By 10.10.11

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The 1960s-era radical Carl Oglesby, former president of Students for a Democratic Society, died several weeks ago, earning many respectful obituaries. Almost none, excepting the New Republic's, seemed to cite his formative influence on a young Hillary Clinton.

In a 1994 Newsweek interview about her Methodist faith, the then First Lady revealed that Oglesby's 1966 screed against the Vietnam War, published in a Methodist youth magazine, had deeply shaped her. Her new stance on Vietnam shifted her from a Goldwater conservative to McGovern liberalism. (I wrote about this interview and Oglesby for the March 1995 American Spectator.) 

Even the Guardian in Britain, in its own obituary, hailed Oglesby as "one of the most talented and interesting of the leaders of the 1960s American left." He didn't come to radical political activism until he was already a husband and father in his late 20s, but he rose quickly in SDS until displaced for not being sufficiently far left. Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver unsuccessfully asked Oglesby to be his running mate in a symbolic 1968 presidential bid. Oglesby's passionate appeal, "Let Us Shape the Future," to a massive 1965 anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C. is remembered as classic. Despite his attacks on capitalism, he later flirted with Libertarianism. And his post-1960s decades seem to have been relatively quiet, moving across different professions, and reputedly nursing an obsession with JFK's assassination. In a sign of his eventual domestication, Oglesby co-wrote a book about buying your "dream house" with PBS home repair star Bob Vila.

In 2008, an ailing Oglesby told the Washington Post he first met a young Hillary when he spoke in the late 1960s at Wellesley, where she was a student leader. "I can't say that I was a close friend of hers," he recalled. "It was more of a passing acquaintance. I liked her. I think of her as a good guy. I think she has a good heart and a solid mind. And I support her in the current primary [against Barack Obama]." The Post reported the First Lady visited Oglesby in 1994, which her official schedule omitted. "We mostly discussed the '60s," he told the Boston Globe. "I may have been a little gushy in my praise of the administration, but she was extremely impressive." In 2008, he told Reason magazine he had not sought recent contact: "A friend of mine mentioned me to her not long ago, and according to him she got a case of the shakes. I think it was because she could imagine if any of her considerable enemies on the right wanted to do her in, they would be happy to discover a relationship between her and me."

Apparently Hillary had not yet met Oglesby when she first read the formative, 8,000 word, 1966 anti-war article in the Methodist student magazine motive, called "World Revolution and American Containment." Oglesby decried the "virulent strain" of American imperialism enforced by big business and the U.S. Marines. "What would be so obviously wrong about a Vietnam run by Ho Chi Minh [or] a Cuba by Castro?" he asked. Oglesby regretted that America, at the behest of big business, was maintaining 6,000 military bases to combat "socialist tyrannies which are trying to feed, clothe, house, and cure their people." He faulted the West for opposing Bolshevism during Russia's civil war and subsequent antagonism against the Soviet Union, which benignly tolerated America's "outrages" in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere.

According to Oglesby in motive, the U.S. only wanted a world "safe for the American businessman, on terms always advantageous, in environments always protected by friendly or puppet oligarchies by the Marines themselves." He hoped leftists would capture "dominoes" like Brazil and then "break up foreign monopolies, raise wages, redistribute land and trade freely with all nations." If they subsequently go totalitarian, so be it, he mused.

Motive, which had even been pacifist during World War II, was always too radical for most Methodists and finally shut down in 1971. Hillary told Newsweek in 1994 that she "still has every issue they sent me." Newsweek oddly described Oglesby as a "Methodist theologian," but he does not seem to have professed much religion, much less claimed theological expertise. He wrote another article for motive in1968, called "Will Success Spoil SDS." It avoided spiritual themes, which probably didn't much interest the highly politicized motive anyway, and he instead bewailed "this faltering system of Yankee power."

In a 1991 PBS documentary on the 1960s, Oglesby rued his once "blazing contempt for straight America," now appreciating the "labor" and "effort" necessary for middle class life. He also recounted his "personal burn-out" in 1971 from the "movement." And he remembered the 1960s as a "tailspin," a "corkscrew" and "never ending mystery." Not only an orator and writer, he composed and sang folk songs. Oglesby seemed to regret the "enormous rupture" his political radicalism had created between himself and his father, a blue-collar laborer who couldn't understand why his college educated son was so disgruntled with the American dream. 

Just one of many in the 1960s who rebelled against their parents and their country, Oglesby seems at least partly to have grown a little wiser with age. But during his early years of rage, he decisively influenced a once conservative young Methodist woman who would herself champion radical causes before her own political career necessitated moderation.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.