The political partnership began with an election for editor of The Daily Tar Heel, the student paper in Chapel Hill. It ended with a U.S. presidency being brought to an abrupt and shocking close.
The death last month (March) of Curtis Gans recalls one of the more remarkable friendships in American politics. Gans and Allard Lowenstein were two Northerners who met in 1957 at the University of North Carolina.
Lowenstein managed Gans’ campaign to become editor of the student newspaper. At the time, Gans was an undergraduate, and Lowenstein was a graduate student counselor for the athletics department.
Both were admirers of former UNC President Frank Porter Graham. It was a team that would be a powerful force in liberal politics in the ’60s. Gans had the organizational skills, while Lowenstein was the charismatic speaker.
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Gans aided the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins and became vice president of the National Student Association. He also helped found the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), although he broke with the group before it entered its radical phase.
In the early 1960s, Lowenstein taught briefly at N.C. State University, where his civil rights activism enraged the legislature. Among other things, he challenged Raleigh’s segregation laws when he escorted Angie Brooks, Liberia’s United Nations ambassador, to a prominent downtown coffee shop and cafeteria in 1963. She was denied service, creating international attention and a public apology from Gov. Terry Sanford.
Like many liberals, both Gans and Lowenstein had become disenchanted with the Vietnam War, and in April 1967, Lowenstein called a meeting at his family’s Manhattan restaurant to begin what was known as the Dump Johnson movement.
During a three-month period, Gans traveled to 42 states, organizing opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Lowenstein would often follow to address public meetings. Through the early months, the operation was run out of Gans’ Capitol Hill townhouse.
Lowenstein and Gans courted Sen. Robert Kennedy and then Sen. George McGovern to challenge LBJ in the Democratic primary. When they declined, they recruited Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
Lowenstein/Gans made their key stand in New Hampshire, where their horde of student volunteers, including a young Wellesley student named Hillary Rodham, helped McCarthy gain 42 percent vote, with Johnson getting 48 percent.
The close call in New Hampshire, along with bad polling numbers in upcoming primary states, was enough for Johnson to announce he would not seek another term.
Strained at times
McCarthy never did win the nomination. Much of the anti-war vote moved to Kennedy, who had entered the race and was assassinated in Los Angeles. Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee, losing to Republican former Vice President Richard Nixon.
Their partnership was not always perfect. Gans often felt that Lowenstein tried to take credit for what they had achieved together, according to Charles Kaiser in his book, “1968 in America.”
Lowenstein was elected to a New York congressional seat later in 1968, but lost it the following election after redistricting. He would run for Congress several times unsuccessfully in later years. He was killed by a deranged gunman in 1980.
I later met Gans when he became co-founder and director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, where he was an expert on voter participation.
Gans died last month of lung cancer at age 77, the last of one of the most remarkable political duos to come out of UNC, or any other school.