Clean Gene

Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, 1916-2005.

The death of Sen. Eugene McCarthy causes discrepant spasms of melancholy, some of them perhaps merely nostalgic and others idiosyncratic. I first found myself reflecting, almost irrelevantly, about a campaign that could have featured Seymour Hersh and Kitty Kelley among its volunteer staff. (Kitty had a reunion party for the survivors a while back, which was the last time I actually saw McCarthy in good voice.) Then again, how many senators can you think of with whom it would have been a pleasure to spend an evening discussing matters other than politics? From the last decade or so, only the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan comes at once to mind. With McCarthy, hours could be occupied in the finer points of poetry, in the history of Ireland, or in the arcane points of Roman Catholic doctrine. If political matters had to be raised, in the conventional Washington mode that evaluates actual or potential candidates for high office, Gene could play the game retrospectively, nominating the winner of the “worst-ever president” award (which he staunchly insisted, against strong competition, had to go to Jimmy Carter).

His own run for the highest office in 1968 will always be remembered, not just for its historic importance in confronting the Vietnam War and the war-makers, but because it inverted the usual boring and stultifying order in which these things are supposed to occur. It wasn’t a matter of first designing a campaign, then hiring the consultants and fixers, then grooming a candidate and then finding him an “issue.” Instead, it really was as if the hour had brought forth a man and the volunteers and enthusiasts had followed. McCarthy himself was invariably self-mocking about this, maintaining to the end that the conservative voters of New Hampshire had honestly confused him with the Wisconsin demagogue of the same name and believed that the old champion of anti-Communism had taken the field again. (He once showed me a gift plaque from a group of firefighters in Manchester that did actually seem to materialize that suspicion.)

It could well be, if we judge from the LBJ tapes subsequently edited by Michael Beschloss, that President Johnson would have concluded in any case that the Vietnam War was ruinous, or that his nerve was shot by the time of the Tet offensive, or that he had more of a conscience than most people gave him credit for. Nonetheless, the proximate cause for the sudden implosion was a shoestring campaign started by an honest and eloquent individual, and nothing can ever diminish or discredit that simple fact.

(When one says “shoestring,” by the way, one is forced to recall that the whole operation was essentially underwritten by a few ill-sorted but well-off individuals including, notably, Max Palevsky, Blair Clark, and Martin Peretz. Today’s campaign-finance laws—or “reforms” as they are always described—make a similar undertaking extremely difficult, if not impossible.)

There is another reason why McCarthy’s 1968 campaign repays study. It is one of the best correctives to one of the most boring and dishonest of our national myths: the stupid cult of the Kennedy family. Not only had the elder Kennedy embarked upon an insane and wicked war in Indochina in the first place, but his younger brother and attorney general was compelled by McCarthy’s success in the primaries to enter the race as a spoiler and as the candidate of the party machine. His murder in Los Angeles has since invested the whole sorry business with a retrospective luster of martyrdom and even heroism, but I would urge any curious reader to get hold of Gene’s memoir of that time, originally published in 1969 as TheYear of the People, which gives a truer account. At the last debate between the two men, just before the California vote, all the “fight dirty” instincts of the Kennedy clan were on full view, and McCarthy found himself accused of wanting to negotiate with the Vietcong, of wanting to overcharge Israel for aircraft, and of advocating the mass relocation of black Los Angelenos into Orange County. (He used to like to relate his response, which was, in order, that he couldn’t see who else to negotiate with, that Israel bought its American weapons with money that it had already been given by American taxpayers, and that nice though it might be to have some more black faces in Orange County, he rather feared that most blacks wouldn’t want to risk it.)

Obviously, then, not a man with the needful crowd-pleasing skills. Indeed, he may at some level have had a repressed need to lose. And that, in a way, was the point. He didn’t need to be a “credible” or “electable” candidate for president in order to make his case. All he needed was the chance to tear away the rags that concealed the essential nakedness of the Johnson-McNamara administration. With that task completed, the rest could be left to others. I think I must be right about this, because in later years he did embarrass his friends a bit by running again when there could be no hope or prospect of victory. This assurance of failure must have mattered to him. In those highly enjoyable discussions of the more recondite aspects of church teaching—where he heartened me by agreeing that Mother Teresa suffered from, among other things, a fatal excess of zeal—there was perhaps that very slight wish, often found among hypereducated and intelligent members of the faith, to be a fool for God.

Many of McCarthy’s friends never reconciled themselves to his endorsement of Reagan in 1980, but he was governed in this by a firm conviction that Carter had disgraced the office and abdicated all claim on re-election, and I have the impression that there are fewer people now who genuinely wish that the pious Georgian had enjoyed four more years. At any rate, McCarthy then was following both a logic and a principle and pressing both to a conclusion. If he had put his party first in 1968 nobody would ever have remembered him, as some of us do when we reflect so gloomily on the choice of hacks and careerists and mediocrities from whom the professionals will be selecting on our behalf three years from now.