10/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Paul Newman (and Me) and the 1968 Race for President

In an age when Hollywood activism is a given -- influential though often lampooned -- it may be hard to imagine a time, not so long ago, when it was still rare and often required significant courage. You had to be there to understand the difference between then and now. One of the real groundbreakers was the late Paul Newman. As it happens, we both worked for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and both of us ended up at the riotous Chicago convention in August 1968.

He was a McCarthy activist and a delegate from Connecticut; I had headed Students for McCarthy on my campus and then, as a newspaper reporter, covered the '68 convention -- before taking to the streets to join the protesters.

Newman, like some others in the entertainment world, had been active in the civil rights movement earlier, but the numbers were not large and even fewer took part in political races -- particularly when it involved actual campaigning. Newman, on the other hand, was a crusader for Eugene McCarthy and spoke at dozens of rallies and events -- by one count, at least 15 in Indiana (a key battleground state in the primary season that year) alone. This was probably unprecedented.

Some credit him with, earlier, being largely responsible for McCarthy's strong showing in New Hampshire, which drove LBJ out of the race. The right-wing Manchester Union-Leader tweaked all this by running a photo of the actor with McCarthy with a caption, "Who's that guy with Newman?" Newman drew 2,000 at one rally there but said, "I didn't come here to help Gene McCarthy. I need McCarthy's help."

Newman was also filmed in political ads for the candidate, and emceed a telethon to raise money for McCarthy. In Indiana, he drew large crowds and told one assembly from the tail gate of a station wagon: "I am not a public speaker. I am not a politician. I'm not here because I'm an actor. I'm here because I've got six kids. I don't want it written on my gravestone, 'He was not part of his times.'" And he paved the way for many others in Hollywood to actively campaign for Robert F. Kennedy months after Newman had gone on the stump for McCarthy.

McCarthy, of course, would lose the nomination in Chicago after the bloody "police riot" in the streets and violence even inside the hall. There's a great photo out there of Newman angrily shouting on the convention floor -- with his fellow delegate Arthur Miller nearby.

The next day, I attended a McCarthy gathering where Newman appeared and protested the outcome of the race and the violence. Newman later told a Time reporter about "a month of serious drinking" before deciding on whether to support Humphrey that fall.

So Newman was kind of godfather to all the George Clooneys of today. And no one, before or since, ever dared to say he was not "part of his times."