This is the grave of Vance Hartke.
Before we start here, I want you to imagine something. You might have to really go deep into the world of pretend. But think of a world where Indiana voters would elect liberal politicians. Let’s see what that world looked like.
Born in 1919 in Stendal, Indiana, Hartke grew in a German family gone middle class. His father was a teacher and his mother an organist. He went to public schools and then onto what is today the University of Evansville, which he graduated from in 1940. When World War II started, Hartke was in the Navy and then the Coast Guard. He started as a seaman but ended as a lieutenant. After the war, he got a law degree from Indiana University completing it in 1948. He started practicing in Evansville and got involved in local and then state Democratic politics. He became mayor of Evansville in 1956. His signature policy here was integrating the city’s pools. Evansville had gained a sizable Black population as it had a decent sized industrial base. Moreover, it’s about as far south in Indiana as you can go, a whole lot closer to Tennessee than Chicago. There was a lot of pro-segregationist sentiment in the city. So this was a real victory.
Hartke moved from Evansville to the Senate in 1958, replacing the awful Joe McCarthy ally William Jenner, who did not seek reelection that year. This was a significant shift to the left. It was also a big victory for organized labor, who did much to get him in the Senate. He defeated the sitting Republican governor as well. This was a wave year for Democrats and the Indiana Republican Party had some highway funding corruption scandals. The conditions were right for a good Democrat to win a narrow victory. Still, Hartke was a rising star. Lyndon Johnson saw the potential and gave him choice positions on the Finance and Commerce committees. When Johnson became president, his young ally became an important mover in the passage of the Great Society, including Medicare. Not surprisingly, Hartke also supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was still OK with the voters of Indiana and they reelected him that fall, another very good year for Democrats. In his second term, he became deeply involved in building the nation’s public transportation network, being a very strong supporter of Amtrak during its creation. In 1964, his sister was killed in a car crash and he blamed the auto industry’s shoddy safety standard. This was right when Ralph Nader became famous for Unsafe at Any Speed and so much of his second term was also about forcing safety standards on the auto industry, including mandatory seat belts. He continued working on pushing forward the Great Society, including Head Start. He was a strong supporter of the student loan program for college, which was a good idea at the time, regardless of how the higher education industry has abused it since.
But Hartke also broke from Johnson and not surprisingly this was over the Vietnam War. Like many liberals, he became a sharp critical of the horrible and stupid war. Johnson was furious. The voters of Indiana weren’t thrilled either. As the modern culture wars began taking shape around this time, Hartke was on the wrong side of this for a lot of blue collar Indiana voters who thought William Calley was a hero for massacring Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, for example. So when he went for his third term in 1970, he barely won. That did not diminish his liberalism. He became a big supporter of veterans’ issues in his third term and was the first chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He was still quite ambitious and threw his hat into the ring for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Although he might have made a good candidate, he got no traction and then the McGovern disaster happened, not that Hartke was the second or third or fourth choice of the voters. His single theme in his campaign was immediate and complete withdrawal from Vietnam. Even much later in life though, he repeatedly expressed his admiration for Lyndon Johnson, despite Vietnam.
As the 1970s continued, Hartke’s liberalism did not age well with a changing Indiana electorate. He continued the fight for a better nation, pushing forward the International Executive Service Corps, which was a Peace Corps like program. He had a primary challenge from the right when he ran for a fourth term in 1976. He defeated it but was damaged. That fall, he was defeated in the general election by Dick Lugar, who became an Indiana institution himself, though one perhaps best remembered today for once being a couple of tables over from me at a restaurant.
Hartke wrote a few books over the years, including on his opposition to Vietnam. He started his own law firm based in Falls Church, Virginia and went into the lobbying world and got himself in some trouble in the early 1990s when a Kentucky firm hired him to support him during a campaign to legalize casino gambling. There were shenanigans of some kind and in 1994 he plead guilty to a misdemeanor election fraud charge.
In 1998, Hartke sat down for an interview about his opposition to the Vietnam War. He said, “Some people have never forgiven me for being opposed to the war. They thought it was wrong to be opposed to the president. They said, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ I thought it was a responsibility to point out where we were wrong.” Asked if he felt vindicated, he responded, “More sorrow than vindication. I feel sorrow because I think that dark shadow of Vietnam still hangs over this country.”
He died in 2004, at the age of 84. He worked all the way to the end, including the day before his death, which was from a heart attack.
Might as well watch a bit of Hartke over the years:
Vance Hartke is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.
If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1958, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John J. Williams is in Millsboro, Delaware and Kenneth Keating is also in Arlington, but I haven’t seen him yet. Previous posts in this series are archived here.