Historic Tidbit: “Think of the House and Senate as a couple. They have almost two years of foreplay and it’s not until the last two weeks that they get down to the real thing.” Bob Neumann, an assistant to Mo Udall, to a Washington Post reporter. Udall recounted that in his book, “Too funny to be President.” Looking at congress today, it can be said that some things never change.
The LBJ landslide of 1964 turned nearly 50 Republican House seats Democratic. One of the most surprising was the win by John Dow, a 59 year old systems analyst consultant, who captured a pretty fairly Republican district in the New York City burbs. Who did he beat? Katherine St. George, the first cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had held the seat for 18 years. Dow would serve three non-consecutive terms and achieve recognition as one of the earliest and most dogged opponents of the Vietnam War.
Upon first coming across the name John Dow, I thought it was pronounced the same way as that average, unidentified figure, John Doe (it was pronounced “dow” as in, Dow Jones). It might as well have been the former. Dow was a Harvard educated, successful businessman at the New York City based American Car and Foundry Company, but his success at winning offices was another story. For prior to 1964, Dow had sought a number of offices, from the New York Assembly to the State Senate to Orange County Supervisor), and failed to hit as much as 40%. ’64 was expected to be no different. Dow himself had said that party leaders had given him the nomination because “they thought I deserved it.”
St. George had appeared to find a happy medium as a staunch conservative but avid proponent of the Equal Rights amendment (opposing it was like “being against motherhood”). She backed the Civil Rights Act. Her status as a British born socialite was not out of line in these parts. This was the Hudson River Valley, where the famous Tappen Zee Bridge connects New York City to these areas of relative affluence (even St. George’s home-town, Tuxedo Park, lent an aura to that). It’s boundaries went up to the Catskills resorts. And the county at the heart of it was Rockland.
Rockland was more moderate than the other’s in the district, but as the new york times noted, LBJ would be just the fourth Democratic presidential candidate to carry it since the Civil War (McClellan beat Lincoln by 844 votes, Grover Cleveland took it by 250, and FDR beat Alf Landon by just 293 votes in his ’36 rout. Meanwhile, Orange to the north and Delaware and Sullivan counties to the west would more than cancel out any of Rockland’s moderate proclivities. All-in-all, the district had a 3-2 Republican registration. And in the past, St.George never had to sweat re-election. But both sides appeared to underestimate the coattail effect, and that was enough to give Dow the seat with 52%.
Had St. George taken her challenge seriously, she might have been able to hold on. but she did virtually no campaigning, appearing at receptions and often issuing press releases from her home, but little else. It was the same style that would contribute to the loss of another well-respected woman, Margaret Chase Smith in 1972. Meanwhile, Dow, asked by Daniel Patrick Moynihan how it felt to be a member of Congress replied, “I’ve got a job.”
The day after her defeat, St. George seemed as surprised as everyone else. She said “we conservatives were taken in, really taken in, by people we thought were on our side but weren’t. These people deluded all the young people.” Still, she took her loss in stride (“heavens, I’m just going to relax”). Dow said johnson’s way is “ambivalence — negotiating and fighting. I’m on the negotiating side.”
But Dow was not about to relax. Dow may have been viewed as renting a seat, but got to right. days after the election, he was meeting with conservationists who opposed the Storm King project, which would create a generating plant near the Breakneck Mountain in the Hudson River. but his legacy would be opposing the Vietnam early to the point that, just four months after taking office, he would be one of just seven House members to oppose an Appropriation for efforts. that brought him fire from his opponent, who charged that he “voted against our troops and apologized for our role in Vietnam.” Dow said Johnson’s way is “ambivalence — negotiations and fighting. I’m on the negotiating side.”
Even aside from Vietnam, Dow was staunchly liberal. He was an avid environmentalist, favored removing penalties for flag desecration, while opposing additional penalties for possession of certain drugs.
In 1966, House Republicans were recapturing nearly the same number of seats they had lost two years earlier. Dow was expected to be among the casualties, to the extent that it wasn’t until late in the game that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would even come to his aid. But what did come to his aide was a split between the Republicans and the conservatives, each of whom put up their own candidates. That aided Dow who squeaked back into office with 47% (his 8,000 vote margin in Rockland was greater than the GOP margin in the other areas).
But 1968 would be a different story. A similar Republican/Conservative split was present but, this time, Nixon would be winning big and it would be enough for Martin McKneally, a former commander of the American Legion, to unseat Dow by 6,000 votes, 47-44% in what one person called “a fantastic amount of ticket splitting unexplainable to students of politics.”
in 1970, Dow would try for a comeback and, like ’64, would appear the underdog. But then came revelations that McKneally had failed to file his taxes and Dow eked back into the seat with 52%.
In 1972, he faced his toughest challenge. Not only would he have to contend with a lopsided Nixon margin (it would be 68% in the district), but Ben Gilman, a Sate Assemblyman, was a well-known commodity. He compared Dow to Bella Abzug, while Dow tried to court the district’s significant Jewish population by noting his backing of every Israeli appropriation. He was also helped by his opposition to the Stewart Airport expansion in orange county.
The Republican ticket again lacked unity, which again would hold the Republican candidate below 50%. the difference was that Dow would be reduced to just 39%. This time, there would be no comebacks, but not for lack of trying. Dow aimed to unseat Gilman in the Watergate year, but the incumbent won by 15%. And the passion and zest for service remained so that Dow would even try for one last comeback, at 85 in 1990. but by then Gilman was among the most senior members of Congress and he’d outspend Dow $497,000 to just $3,000. dow would capture just 27%.
Dow would teach at Vasser College and live to 97, passing two years after his wife of 70 years, and would be praised by Gilman, who called him, “always a man of courage and integrity. We never differed on personalities, only the issues. He stood strong on opposing the war in vietnam when few others did.” Orange County Democratic Chair Jon Jacobson called dow “forthright and straightforward with his views and not scared to take a personal conviction, even though it might not be popular with his constituents.”
In it’s endorsement of Dow in 1972, the New York Times said he had “to an unusual degree voted his conscience.” That wasa rarity in his day but even more so now. It’s a reason he ought be heralded as a true public servant, and one who can serve as a guide for many in any generation.