A socialist presidential candidate — no, not that one — looks back

David McReynolds speaking at the 2009 Left Forum in New York City.
David McReynolds speaking at the 2009 Left Forum in New York City.

BY JOSEPH MULKERIN  |  David McReynolds, 85 has lived in the same East Village building since the 1960s. His original apartment was gutted by a fire two and a half years ago and one of the few items that he managed to salvage from the wreckage was his F.B.I. file, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request in the 1970s. The file, which sits inconspicuously on a cluttered shelf overlooking his TV, exceeds 300 pages and is something that he regards as a badge of honor.

“The agent in charge of my case just recommended that they just discontinue surveillance,” he wryly recollected. “This is from way back in the mid-’50s, I think. Fortunately, he was overruled or it would be very embarrassing.” Embarrassing, that is, to his leftist cred, McReynolds jokingly meant.

McReynolds has, in many respects, been a pioneer. As a committed pacifist, in 1964, he co-authored, along with AJ Muste, the very first statement opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. At a time when few Americans could point out Vietnam on a map, McReynolds fairly accurately described the history of U.S. involvement in the region up until that time and pointed out the flow of U.S. weapons and advisers into the region. He was also a draft resister during the Korean War, long before such an action was considered fashionable.

In 1980, running as the nominee of the Socialist Party, he also had the distinction of being the first openly gay presidential candidate. Although his name is known by few, McReynolds’s career as an activist has perhaps been more prolific than anyone else living.

Standing more than six feet tall with a thin sliver of white hair, McReynolds is a polite and welcoming man. Through Facebook, he maintains contact with and is readily accessible to a wide circle of fellow travelers. Within the radical socialist and pacifist community of New York he is something of an elder statesman. He invites many of his close friends and fellow activists over to the studio apartment on E. Fourth St. that he shares with his two cats, Shaman and Rustie, for regular gatherings. I was promptly invited to one of them.

A group of socialists, anarchists and radical pacifists intensely discussing politics late into the night would have been a commonplace occurrence in the East Village of yesteryear. But in the upscale neighborhood of 2015 late-night bull sessions are far more likely to revolve around the derivatives market or the latest iPhone app.

Born in Los Angeles in 1928, the oldest of three children, McReynolds describes his childhood as “pretty protected.” His father’s employment as head of the local water reserve, combined with access to his grandfather’s farm and livestock, largely shielded the family from the worst effects of the Great Depression.

Initially, in what he candidly describes as “a Freudian, not a political issue,” McReynolds tended to take the liberal position when arguing with his father, a conservative-leaning independent. McReynolds’s earliest political affiliation was surprisingly enough to the Prohibition Party, which he became involved with through his family’s Baptist Church. It was already a politically marginal group more than a decade after the repeal of the Volstead Act, but McReynolds’s commitment was strong enough that in 1948 he worked briefly for one of the party’s congressional candidates in Kansas.

Gradually, though, his faith began to fade and with it his prohibitionist stance, due in part to his homosexuality, which he says “was totally incompatible with the Christian Church at that time. It’s changed a good deal but there was no wiggle room at all there,” he recalled.

Discovering the pleasures of alcohol may have also helped and McReynolds got his first taste while visiting a friend following a speech that he gave, ironically enough, to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

“I had maybe a tablespoon full of whiskey and I kept waiting for it to do weird things,” he said. “You know, I thought I was going to pass out or have hallucinations or something. Of course nothing happened.”

In 1951, having fully shifted his allegiance to the socialist movement while attending UCLA, McReynolds officially severed his ties with the Prohibition Party. While sailing to England on official movement business, he composed a letter of resignation which he mailed back to the States when the ship docked at Southampton.

The early 1950s were a precarious time for a budding young leftist. The scourge of McCarthyism scared many away from political activism at a time when even the perception of radical sentiments could be damaging to career prospects. McReynolds recalled purchasing an album of Paul Robeson songs.

“It was from a guy at UCLA whom I didn’t like particularly and he wasn’t left wing,” he said, “but he offered to sell me his 78 album of Paul Robeson’s ‘Songs of Free Men.’ ”

Not surprisingly, McReynolds’s political activism led to his being fired for explicitly political reasons at least once. In an incident vaguely reminiscent of a “Mad Men” subplot, he was canned from his job at a Los Angales advertising agency in the late ’50s when the firm was in the process of applying for defense contracts.

“The guy who was in charge of the advertising department pulled me in and said, ‘David I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I think you deserve to know. You’ve done very good work, we’ve had no problems at all with you. But I have to let you know because the F.B.I. has come by and indicated that you’re a security risk, so we don’t have any alternative.”

After moving to New York in 1960 and taking a position as field director with the War Resisters League, where he would remain until his retirement, McReynolds was freed from any constraints on his political activism.

“The pay was very poor but I was job secure because you don’t get fired from the W.R.L. for being a radical,” he said.

After hearing early civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin speak in 1949, McReynolds became a committed pacifist. However, he refused to apply for conscientious objector status, feeling that the system was discriminatory since it privileged religious convictions over secular ones.

“My friend Verne Davidson, who was sort of my mentor at UCLA, could not get a C.O. exemption because he was an atheist,” he recalled. “And so I felt — and I went back in my mind — I felt again that in asking for the exemption I could not answer the question ‘Do I believe in God?’ because that would be to take a special privilege that Verne couldn’t have. So I didn’t answer that question when I made the reapplication. Therefore, I didn’t meet the qualifications of being a religious objector.”

As a result, McReynolds received his draft notice in 1951. The day he was scheduled to report for duty, McReynolds showed up at the Army recruiting center. Although he still could have been granted a deferment had he either admitted his homosexuality or a mild case of manic depression during the psychological examination, he did neither. Instead, wanting to lead by example in his opposition to war, he refused induction and was promptly arrested.

“I couldn’t say to you I think you shouldn’t go into the Army and I myself am 4-F,” he explained. “So I knew I had to go through.”

He spent the night in prison and was bailed out by his father. McReynolds then hired a lawyer, who petitioned the state appeals board to hear his case. In response, the government dropped all charges out of a desire to not have to disclose the F.B.I. report that had been compiled on him.

McReynolds has always been somewhat hostile to identity politics, a common stance among leftists of his generation. Although he came out of the closet in 1969 — a time when it was still politically risky — he  argues that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision that he didn’t put much thought into.

“I think maybe part of me thought it would be dramatic and get me a new beginning of some kind,” he said. However, McReynolds has never been heavily involved in gay activism.

“I didn’t identify with gay culture, I didn’t like it at all,” he said. “I would go into bars for sex but I didn’t really like much about gay culture. I think Allen Ginsberg spoke to this very well when he said, ‘I am not a queer poet, I am a poet who is queer.’ There is a major distinction between those two concepts and I never found that the gay community produced anything from its position as a ghetto.”

Although he doesn’t shy away from his landmark status as the first openly gay presidential candidate, he never viewed that as central to his political makeup.

“My identity is in this case that of a socialist and a pacifist, which is complex enough,” he said. “So I didn’t run as a queer candidate. I just made it very clear.”

In the 1950s the political left that McReynolds entered into was every bit as homophobic as the broader society. In 1953 the U.S. government informally banned anybody suspected of homosexuality from government employment under Executive Order 10450, considering them to be a security risk susceptible to blackmail. Ironically, despite the fact that homosexuality was at the time largely associated with communism in the popular imagination, the American Communist Party had an identical policy. That same year, McReynolds was offered a staff position with the Fellowship of Redeemers, a Christian pacifist organization, on the condition that he undergo psychiatric treatment for his sexual preference. While McReynolds refused, he harbored no ill will toward the organization and went on to serve on its national committee.

Although he was already an old man by the standards of an era in which the mantra was “never trust anyone over 30,” McReynolds’s status as a self-described “peace movement bureaucrat” naturally led him to the counterculture, whose influence had crept into the War Resisters League.

Peter Stafford, McReynolds’s then-lover, was an author who wrote the book “Psychedelic Baby Reaches Puberty,” a collection of essays about the drug culture. Although McReynolds himself occasionally brewed and drank peyote, his own views were also heavily informed by his class-conscious outlook.

“I said, ‘Look Peter, the drugs are not going to solve the problems in Harlem.’ They’re not and, in fact, the drugs in Harlem were heroin, not LSD,” he noted. “People in Harlem did not want their consciousness expanded. They wanted it closed down. They didn’t want to see more things, they wanted to go to sleep, to pass out, and heroin could do that and LSD could not.”

McReynolds did throw himself wholeheartedly into the anti-war movement, though, participating symbolically in the first draft-card burning in 1965, and in 1968 signing a tax-resisters pledge in opposition to the war. In 1968 he stood as the nominee of the Peace and Freedom Party in Manhattan’s former 19th Congressional District but managed to receive just under 5 percent of the vote.

In 1980, at the urging of his comrade Maggie Fehr, McReynolds launched the first of his two quixotic bids for president. He ran on a platform of cutting the defense budget by one quarter, guaranteed employment and the nationalization of energy companies. Although he only received 6,898 votes nationally, he believes that, given the stakes, his campaign was reasonably successful.

In 2000 he ran again. That February, in an interview with The Progressive, McReynolds predicted that, “Gore probably has the campaign sewn up,” due to the roaring economy. He briefly emerged in the news at the time, for receiving a larger-than-expected number of votes in Palm Beach County, Florida, due to the infamous “butterfly ballot.”

Though he has never been tarred with the accusation of spoiler that Democratic partisans have long used to lambaste Ralph Nader — McReynolds only got 5,602 votes — he has acknowledged that, in hindsight, he probably wouldn’t have thrown his hat in the ring.

“I think if I had known the election was going to be that close I might not have run,” he said. “I really don’t think that if Gore had taken the White House we would have had the war in Iraq.”

McReynolds has expressed praise for the campaign of another socialist, Bernie Sanders. Initially, he dismissed Sanders as “not a serious candidate,” but considered his candidacy to be educational in the same way that McReynolds’s own had been. However, he recognizes that Sanders has the potential to reach a far larger audience just by virtue of running as a Democrat. In a more recent Facebook post, while still picking Hillary as the favorite, he said that Sanders’s campaign had shown “much greater vigor then people (including me) had expected.”

McReynolds briefly discussed the minor controversy that he became embroiled in several months ago. As Bedford + Bowery previously reported, several Facebook posts of McReynolds’s were misconstrued as racist — one about Islam and the other about Michael Brown. This led to his being officially censured by the party and resigning his membership this past February.

As we talked, McReynolds elaborated his views on both of these topics. He partly walked back his statement about Islam being particularly violent by condemning bigotry against Muslims. He also argued, perhaps somewhat unusually for someone on the political left, that European anxieties about immigration were not entirely illegitimate.

“There is a problem for Western Europe, which the left shouldn’t evade,” he said. “That is you have countries that have fairly homogeneous societies, Denmark, Norway, fairly homogeneous, which are suddenly being, not invaded, but people are coming in, not as temporary workers who are going to leave — which is true in Switzerland, they have a lot of guest workers who are not planning to stay and Switzerland is not going to ask them to stay — but Denmark has been very opening to them and Holland has been very opening to them. What you’re getting is extreme Muslims emerging in those countries, posing a problem for those countries as to what their national identity is. That has to be discussed. It accounts for the rise of racist parties in Britain and Norway and Sweden, and we can’t get rid of it just by saying the people have a right to enter.”

At the same time, McReynolds, referring to the flow of refugees into Europe, largely placed the blame at the feet of U.S. and Western policymakers.

“Part of the problem is a serious look at the fact that Africa is so f—– up now, with what we did in Libya, with the chaos in Syria, with the magnitude of desperation that leads people to take any chance at all on a boat. You’re not gonna deal with the boat people if you’re simply picking up at sea. You’ve got to ask what drives people to leave their homes at great cost and get on a boat at enormous risk to get to Western Europe.”

When speaking to the issue of police brutality, McReynolds expressed support for what he saw as progress on race relations, at least in terms of the public reaction to the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

“It used to be that you had to be a white kid to get people upset,” he said. “I think we have to recognize that the Kent State killings in 1970 provoked a very different kind of rage than the killings which occurred that same week at a black college. I have to track down the date, but I remember it. It wasn’t so directly linked to the Vietnam War, but they were killed. They were black but that wasn’t fixed on our minds, our minds were fixed on Kent State, which was white.”