Saturday, April 05, 2008

Eugene McCarthy: Epitaph for a Strange Man

Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar Liberalism may sound like a strange title, but he embodied many of the internal contradictions that I found my twenty-plus years as a "liberal" [roughly 1960-1985] reflected inside myself. I worked on McCarthy's National Staff in 1968 in six states [Indiana, Nebraska, California, New York, Michigan, and finally the Chicago Convention in Illinois] and met him and escorted one of his daughters Chelsea Clinton style around southern California campaigning. Here is the book's synopsis & a Publisher's Weekly review:
Originally a New Deal liberal and aggressive anticommunist, Senator Eugene McCarthy famously fell out with the Democratic Party over Vietnam. His stunning challenge to Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary inspired young liberals and was one of the greatest electoral upsets in American history. But the 1968 election ultimately brought Richard Nixon and the Republican Party to power, irrevocably shifting the country's political landscape to the right for decades to come.

Dominic Sandbrook traces one of the most remarkable and significant lives in postwar politics, a career marked by both courage and arrogance. Sandbrook draws on extensive new research-including interviews with McCarthy himself-to show convincingly how Eugene McCarthy's political experience embodies the larger decline of American liberalism after World War II. These were tumultuous times in American politics, and Sandbrook vividly captures the drama and historical significance through his intimate portrait of a singularly interesting man at the heart of it all.

Publishers Weekly

Eugene McCarthy's place in history as a cynosure of the anti-Vietnam War movement is universally acknowledged. Yet McCarthy remains an enigmatic figure to supporters and opponents alike. Sandbrook's biography attempts to take the measure of the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate as a man and as a politician-and McCarthy (b. 1916) fares badly in both categories. Sandbrook, a British scholar of American history, argues that as a politician McCarthy, who served for two decades in the House and the Senate, achieved far less than contemporaries such as John F. Kennedy, Johnson or Humphrey, despite his superior intelligence and natural charisma. Specifically, Sandbrook contends that McCarthy brought no new ideas into the political arena, never won his party's presidential nomination and gave his name to no major bills. Given the rarified sphere that McCarthy occupied, and the scope and depth of the accomplishments of those to whom he is compared, it is arguable that Sandbrook's view is too harsh. But the comments by contemporaries of McCarthy's personal qualities are often damning indeed. Sandbrook quotes from a variety of McCarthy's fellow politicians, friends, family and the press to present the picture of a man who, for all his gifts, was, in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "indolent, frivolous, cynical," or as described by Gilbert Harrison, a friend and former editor of the New Republic, "lazy," "unresponsive" and "insensitive." McCarthy's reported response to the assassination of his 1968 campaign opponent Robert Kennedy was a callous "[h]e brought it on himself." Sandbrook's biography will command attention and spark discussion about this controversial career and McCarthy's role in the end of the New Deal liberal consensus.

Although Schlesinger's critique is a good projection of his own personal foibles, Harrison may be right. I personally was put off when McCarthy dismissed the "Prague Spring" of '68 as "unimportant" or words to that effect. His refusal to support Hubert Humphrey in the post-Chicago Convention campaign was doubly destructive as Humphrey had been his political patron and mentor in Minnesota politics. [I played a backstairs role myself in the Hilton Hotel drama, having thrown some smoked fish bones and ashtrays on the police 15 floors below, as recounted on p. 309 in T.H. White's Making of the President 1968.]

Bizarrely, twenty years later in the late 1980s I found two airline tickets of McCarthy's on the floor of the dry cleaners in our Northwest Washington neighborhood. He was booked on a round-trip flight to Minneapolis. I gave the tickets to the owner to return to the ex-Senator.

I think his experience as a postulant in a Benedictine monastery had given him an other-worldly perspective. McCarthy did have a flinty integrity & a romantic Irish gene which prompted him, I am told, to recite verbatim W.B. Yeats' The Wanderings of Oisin after a few drinks---no mean feat, as the poem is close to a dozen pages long. However, I could never envision him as a sitting president, he was simply too captious and dismissive. A sort of figurehead.

As far as exemplifying postwar liberalism, the combination of Cold Warrior abroad and social engineer at home did fit, but his dreamy and aloof nature was averse to deep commitment as he was more a philosopher and bon vivant litterateur who saw deep irony in fallen human nature.

In the end, he was too much immersed in a Catholic and poetic world-view to be an effective politician---except for leading a crusade against a bloody foreign war.

1 comment :

TGGP said...

I thought I remembered Bill Kauffman having a good bit on Gene McCarthy, but now I can't find it (whoops, I was thinking of McGovern). I read a column by McCarthy a little while back where he said his experience as a small business man showed him how problematic lots of taxes and regulations are, which was odd for someone considered far left.