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The Assassination of Allard Lowenstein

Alex Constantine - July 23, 2013

"... Lowenstein was not convinced that Sirhan Sirhan had acted alone in murdering [Robert] Kennedy and for years, publicly sought unsuccessfully to have the case reopened.. ... Tragically, Lowenstein would meet the same fate. In 1980, as he was working in his Rockefeller Center office, Dennis Sweeney, who had attended, walked into the office in jeans, had a brief conversation with Lowenstein and opened fire, seven times. Five bullets hit him and, despite a blood transfusion and surgery, he could not be saved. He was 51. ..."

Allard Lowenstein A Microcosm of 1968 And Beyond

Historic Tidbit: One day early in his Congressional term, Lowenstein encountered Mendel Rivers, the hawkish segregationist old-time South Carolinian who chaired the House Armed Services Committee. Lowenstein approached him and said, “Mr. Chairman, I have relatives who are constituents of yours,” pointing out that some are named Rivers. “Well,” Rivers replied, “there’s been a lot of intermarriage down there.” The two laughed and began referring to each other as “cousin.’

For those familiar with the events of 1960s and the direction of the nation immediately after, Allard Lowenstein could easily be a microcosm. Though he served a single term in Congress, it pales in comparison to his impact on civil rights, candidate recruitment, student marches and his inspiration of young people in the cause for peace. Even his burial place is in the shadow of history.

Lowenstein grew weary of the Vietnam War quite early, and as such, was among the first figures to begin looking at an alternative to President Johnson. Late in 1967, he began seeking out Bobby Kennedy. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr tells it in RFK And His Times, one night over dinner, a group around the table wondered what the chances were of denying an incumbent President renomination. Lowenthal surmised Johnson may quit if he lost early primaries, to which Kennedy replied, “I think Al may be right. I think Johnson may quit the night before the convention opens.”

But Kennedy wouldn’t be the man to do it, at least not yet. He decided the nation would be divided even more by his candidacy. Lowenstein’s stormed out of his office, saying, “We’re going to do this with or without you…you could’ve been President but you don’t have the balls.” Kennedy put his hand on Lowenstein’s shoulders and said he hoped he understood. He suggested he seek out George McGovern, who would also decline. He then approached Gene McCarthy who, much to the surprise of many, got in.

Lowenstein was fully aboard the McCarthy bandwagon and would remain there even after RFK ultimately reconsidered and entered. But Lowenstein kept in contact with Kennedy officials as late as the night of the California primary, when Kennedy sought Lowenstein and others influential in the peace movement out, recognizing the necessity of rallying behind a single peace candidate if they were to beat Hubert Humphrey (McCarthy had won Oregon, thereby splintering the field). Lowenstein agreed, but only if other luminaries such as John Kenneth Galbraith would do the same.

That night, an assassin’s bullet intervened and changed it all. While Humphrey was poised to ultimately capture the nomination, Lowenstein, like many other liberals were at first hesitant to get behind him. At convention time, he had wanted young people to go to Chicago and protest the Humphrey “coronation.” He wanted it to be peaceful. Television cameras obviously captured other images and Lowenstein was among the people trying to stand down Daley inside the convention hall.

Lowenstein wouldn’t back Humphrey until he vowed to stop the bombing, which didn’t happen until late in the campaign when LBJ let him do so. Ultimately, the holdout of Lowenstein and others proved to be one of the factors of Humphrey’s inability to gain momentum until late in the game, which ultimately saw a razor thin loss.

Well before his interaction with the Kennedy’s, Lowenstein’s career was storied, and Humphrey had been a part of it. Lowenstein had served on Humphrey’s staff in 1959, when the future vice-president was about to make his first Presidential bid (and be defeated by John F. Kennedy).

Having attended Yale Law School, Lowenstein taught at Stanford and UNC. He would work under Eleanor Roosevelt at the American Association for the United Nations. In the late 1950′s, he traveled to South Africa and, years before Mandela was jailed (Lowenstein would narrowly escape arrest himself), would author a book, A Brutal Mandate. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote the prologue.

It was Lowenthal who had a large hand in “Freedom Summer,” organizing bus rides of people from Yale and Stanford to travel to the south and register African-Americans to vote.

But for Lowenstein, 1968 would close on a high note. perhaps the highest of his life. To the surprise of many, he won a Long Island Congressional seat. The margin was narrow, about 4,500 votes (51-49%). Lowenstein’s opponent was the founder of New York’s Conservative Party, Mason Hampton. The district had strong Democratic pockets, but candidates who won there would often struggle. But it’s possible that Hampton, who had a reputation as “the George Wallace of Nassau County,” was a little too far to the right for Long Island.

Lowenstein started the night down slightly, but when County Executive Eugene Nickerson announced that, “I don’t have the figures but it’s my understanding that we’ve won,” the crowd went wild. “Lowenstein told his supporters his “victory is not a victory for an individual. It is a victory for a point of view. This only means we’ve been given the opportunity to do things, not that we’ve done them.” The band played Man of La Mancha’s, “The Impossible Dream.”

The New York Times reported that while Lowenstein, like his fellow freshman Shirley Chisholm, was assigned to the Agriculture Committee, he didn’t mind it, figuring that while New York may not have farms, it did have residents that required food stamps. He did aim for a seat on the Armed Services Committee, and apparently had the support of Chairman Mendel Rivers. But the Steering Committee, controlled by old style Democrats, rejected his bid. Among one of the 50 bills Lowenstein dropped early was taking aim at the selection process.

Colleagues didn’t know what to expect and were pleasantly surprised. One from New York told the Times, ” like any child prodigy, Al was looked upon by some members with concern. But they have found that he is not the wild-eyed maverick most people thought him to be. He’s quietly doing his homework, and as a result he’s gaining much respect in the House.”

Staff was a different matter. Lowenstein would often remain at his office until 2, so his aides would organize their shifts to stay with the Congressman. He had high turnover. But his trademark didn’t stop. An abundance of students continued to call upon him, so many that the Capitol Hill police would simply begin directing them to Lowenstein’s office.

Lowenstein’s improbable 1968 win would be reversed two years later. Redistricting would remove the “Five Towns,” known as a fairly liberal block, from the district and add heavily Republican Massapequa. Republican areas. He would face State Senator Norman Lent, who would attack Lowenstein for being ultra-liberal.

Among the charges: that he wanted American boys to “use their bodies for confrontation,” and attacking his attendance at a rally where “the Vietcong flag was prominently displayed while the United States flag was desecrated. Even some Republicans admonished Lent to tone it down, and some observers actually gave Lowenstein a chance to hold his seat. But the changes would ultimately prove enough for Lent to oust him with 54%.

For many, that would have been a career-ender, but in the words of Chicago, coming to prominence at that time, it would be “Only the Beginning” for Lowenstein. He would run an “ex-Congressional office” and continue addressing college and anti-war groups (an ex-aide who was roughly the same size would speak of lending Lowenstein his jacket because his was always rumpled). One of the men he inspired was a young Mayoral aide named Barney Frank, who would pick Lowenstein up at the airport for a speaking engagement (and it was said in Frank’s bio, emulate his rumpled sits).

Eventually, he would become President of Americans for Democratic Action. His prominence in the “Dump Nixon” movement He was number 7 on Nixon’s enemies list. And he kept aiming for Congress. In a battle that was marred by accusations of anti-semitism and improprieties, Lowenstein opposed conservative Democrat John Rooney and lost by about 800 votes. But he cried foul and the election was re-run. But his time Rooney prevailed by more than 2,000.

In 1974, Lowenstein challenged GOP Congressman John Wydler, only to fall short both times.

Finally, Lowenstein in 1978 challenged Republican Bill Green, who had upset Bella Abzug for ed Koch’s seat when he was elected Mayor. But Lowenstein was edged out in the primary by Councilman Carter Burden.

Lowenstein was not convinced that Sirhan Sirhan had acted alone in murdering Kennedy and for years, publicly sought unsuccessfully to have the case reopened.

Meanwhile, President Carter would appoint him United States Representative to the United States Commission on Human Relations. and as Harriet Eisman would say, “continued his usual routine of fifty other projects at the same time.” Talking to students would be among them. And he’d use the most unconventional ways to reach them, even doing an interview for Penthouse Magazine.

Tragically, Lowenstein would meet the same fate. In 1980, as he was working in his Rockefeller Center office, Dennis Sweeney, who had attended walked into the office in jeans, had a brief conversation with Lowenstein and opened fire, seven times. Five bullets hit him and, despite a blood transfusion and surgery, he could not be saved. He was 51.

Greg Craig, who would later go on to be Bill Clinton’s top lawyer, would say that as far back as six months before, Lowenstein had been fearful of Dennis’s mental state. He was found not guilty by reason of being a paranoid schizophrenic.

Indeed, at that time, Lowenstein had been supporting Ted Kennedy against Carter and, when he heard the news of Lowenstein’s murder, he was ashen. Kennedy interrupted his campaign and proclaimed, “with his endless energy, with his papers, his clothes, his books, and seemingly his whole life jammed into briefcases, envelopes, and satchels — all of it carried with him everywhere, he was a portable and powerful lobby for progressive principles.” Kennedy continued: “all by himself, he was more effective than an organization by the thousands. He was a one-man demonstration for civil rights; even when he walked alone. He was a multitude marching for peace. He had a gentle passion for the truth.” William Buckley, his sometimes rival, eulogized him.

Don Riegel, elected to the House two years before Lowenstein as a Republican, said he “had some considerable bearing on my decision to change parties.” Pat Schroeder said “he had a knack for focusing in on issues that no one else was paying attention to and getting people to understand that these were vital struggles,” Schroeder said. “That just shows you the energy and the passion of the man.”

And David Broder called it David Broder “beyond dispute, that he brought more young people into American politics than any individual of our time.”

Lowenstein’s biography at Yale Law School’s Orville Schell’s Jr Center For International Human Rights notes “his passionate leadership played a crucial role in the civil rights, anti-apartheid, anti-war, and human rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

So many figures who inspired the young with messages of peace and non-violence were taken by tragedy. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr were taken that year alone. Paul Wellstone would perish more than a generation later. And in between was Lowenstein, who may well have made the rise of all possible.

Lowenstein was an Army veteran, and thus earned the right to be buried at Arlington. Appropriately, his plot is just near the graves of both Kennedy’s. The words on his stone contains a verse by Emerson, which Bobby Kennedy had given to Emerson in a note on a bus during the campaign. It read, “If a single man plants himself on his convictions and there abide, the huge world will come around to him.”

A book, Never Stop Running: Allard Lowenstein and the Struggle To Save American Liberalism was published by William Chafe.



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  1. Your article has some critical omissions. What did Sweeney “attend” before he shot Lowenstein? And how did Lowenstein know Dennis Sweeney? Who the heck was Sweeney?

    1. He was worried about Sweeny, but somehow he was allowed into his office.
      Too smart to be that big of an idiot.
      Sirhan couldn’t have been alone. A bullet hole with powder burns BEHIND Bobby’s right ear simply could not have been created by Sirhan, because he was never close enough. And the repairs in that room. More holes were repaired than sirhans gun held bullets.

  2. I, too am curious about Sweeny and what eventually happened to him. Lowenstein was involved with the CIA. He tried to recruit me when I was at Yale.

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