Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Last Saturday, we went to a luncheon at Arlington’s venerable Alpine Restaurant on Lee Highway to celebrate Vivian Kallen’s eightieth birthday.

You would never know she was eighty, though. She is as vibrant as she ever was, and still deeply active in Arlington’s civic and cultural life.

But this isn’t really about Vivian’s party, but the trip down memory lane Jean and I took as we poured through our huge box of political stuff accumulated over some 50 years in Arlington politics

Vivian moved to Arlington about fifty years ago and almost immediately became involved in Arlington Democratic politics. In those days, the party and much of local politics was controlled by the world infamous Byrd organization. Cracks were beginning to show in the mid to late fifties as many Arlingtonians fought the organization in the battle to integrate our schools.

The cracks became chasms as many in Northern Virginia moved to dismantle a political organization that was largely opposed to the progressive policies necessary to build a modern urban society that Northern Virginia was fast becoming.
We dug up a multitude of sample ballots clearly, and sometimes quite dramatically, informing us of who the good guys and the bad guys were – and even a couple of the good girls and bad girls. Some of the pieces told us to be sure to pay the $1.50 poll tax!

Vivian was one of the early female candidates for office (House of Delegates), and we came across a good sampling of her campaign literature. One notable piece was a black bumper sticker with Vivian’s name in a yellow-greenish hue and very feminine typeface. As the brand new communications director for the local Democratic Party, I politely told her that this would never do – much too feminine! Not exactly the argument to use for one of the most prominent and vocal feminists around.

That year, 1969, was our nadir. The Democrats lost every seat Arlington had in the General Assembly!

Presidential primaries were very important. One of the most dramatic was 1964, when the Arlington pro-LBJ delegation to the state convention was seated in the very rear of the balcony of the old Mosque convention hall in Richmond. When the convention bucked the Byrd organization and voted for LBJ, primarily because of the efforts of the Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia delegations, the balcony shook so hard that Jean feared she would die when it collapsed – “but it would have been worth it!”

The 1972 primary was also hard fought, though by this time most of the Byrd organization Democrats had left the party. We liberals showed our penchant for organizing our firing squads in a circle, facing inward. The local convention was filled with Ed Muskie, George McGovern, Fred Harris, Shirley Chisholm, and John Lindsey supporters, to name just a few.

The Muskie forces were supposed to carry the convention with a majority of the vote, with McGovern forces coming in second. Just before the vote was to be taken, someone had taken the Muskie sample ballots and stamped all of them “The Byrd-Broyhill Conservative Coalition!” It worked. The McGovern forces carried a majority of the vote. As chairman of the convention, and a strong Muskie supporter, I was shown on national television announcing my own ignominious defeat.

We reveled in reliving some of the “good old days” of Arlington politics. All because of Vivian Kallen’s gala eightieth birthday party.

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