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Dustin Hoffman in the Gene McCarthy for President Campaign

A nondescript parking lot now takes up the space adjacent to the College Hill and the North End sections on Providence’s north side. But there once stood in that place a sports arena that hosted the Rhode Island Reds hockey team and a host of entertainment venues.

It was at the height of the 1968 presidential campaign that Dustin Hoffman came to town. I still have the mimeographed poster bill from the event, collected along with a 60s’ trove of political paraphernalia, as my mother was a local campaign coordinator of McCarthy’s run for the presidency.

There was still plenty of innocence and idealism to go around on the evening that the auditorium filled to capacity to hear Hoffman plug the senator from Minnesota as a peace candidate who was in a race for the Democratic Party’s nomination against Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Only months before, Lyndon Johnson had announced, during a March 1968 TV appearance, that he was throwing in the towel saying that he was going to give his full attention to finding a peaceful solution to the Vietnam War. The American War, as the Vietnamese people call it, went on for another seven years with unmatched brutality while Richard Nixon was president.

Only a few months before this campaign rally, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been gunned down. But blood and mayhem had not yet broken out at the scheduled Chicago convention of the Democrats. The My Lai massacre in Vietnam in March of that year was largely unknown. Woodstock was a full year away and the massacres at Kent State and Jackson State were almost two years distant.

Back to the topics of idealism and innocence: When Hoffman took the stage at the auditorium, he walked to its front and traced a line with his foot on the stage’s flooring, looking down much in the fashion of the confused, shy, and unassuming character he portrayed in The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock. I can’t remember the specific content of Hoffman’s speech all of these decades later: He plugged McCarthy much like artists do today for candidates whom they endorse. Here in the flesh was the symbol of innocence of the 1960s. Like many from this generation, the character that Hoffman portrayed, Benjamin Braddock, was worried about the “future.”

Who wasn’t worried about the future besides “fortunate son(s)” with a massive war raging half a world away, not to mention the challenges of coming of age in an era that questioned almost everything? The entire world was in flux and revolution was in the air and on the streets in many, many places around the world.

Following the rally, there was a reception for the campaign that hosted Hoffman across town at the Biltmore Hotel. Both my mother and a next-door neighbor got to spend a few minutes speaking with Hoffman and they reported that the experience was pretty much unbelievable. They were face to face and up close and personal with one of the icons of the era who had portrayed Buck Henry’s loveable iconoclast with unparalleled perfection.

Fast forward to this era of shameful meanness. Reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the charges of sexual impropriety are like the gathered young women of Salem led by Abigail Williams, only now the players are for real and the charges seem endless. Does it come as a surprise to even the most casual of observers that assault and the misuse of power is perpetrated and unmasked in this epoch? The extremists bring out the extremes of behavior. The perpetrators are of every kind, and always males looking for control and power over those supposedly weaker then themselves (“Dustin Hoffman Accused of Exposing Himself to a Minor, Assaulting Two Women,” Variety, December 14, 2017). Mr. Hoffman’s attorney, Mark Neubauer, reacting to the Variety article, called “the accusations against the actor defamatory falsehoods” (“Three More Women Accuse Dustin Hoffman of Sexual Misconduct, Variety Reports,” New York Times, December 15, 2107).

Nothing is sacred. Even the set of The Graduate that produced this 60s’ hero was not immune to questionable behavior (“Yes, Dustin Hoffman Assaulted Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross. But the Rules were Different Then,” The Huffington Post, November 3, 2017). Indeed, there was a difference in degree, but there lies perhaps a tale of a beginning.

With sexual assault and assault in general permeating the fabric of a shattered society, Donald Trump traveled the country in one of his many roles, then in a cameo TV appearance, and boasted of grabbing “pussy,” which turned out to be only one of many, many serious incidents of alleged assault of a predatory sexual nature. Democracy Now makes a valid point when it highlights the 16 women accusing Trump of assault and how a receptionist, Rachel Crooks, while working at Trump Tower in Manhattan, was intimidated by Trump following an alleged assault and remained silent until now (“Meet the Miss USA Contestant Accusing Trump of Sexual Misconduct as Senators Call for Him to Resign,” December 12, 2017).

Donald Trump and other alleged perpetrators at different levels and with different degrees of control over women and men in work and in less formal situations can be understood and unequivocally rejected. But it takes a short leap backwards in time to a place and an era that had so much hope and idealism that the words Et tu, Dustin? Break my damn heart.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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