Eugene McCarthy  

redmustang91 57M  
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12/20/2005 8:29 am

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3/5/2006 9:27 pm

Eugene McCarthy

This recollection of Gene McCarthy from the NY Times showed why Gene was so unusual as a politician with a mind and conscience and a quiet demeanor:

The Quiet Man
ON Nov. 30, 1967, I traveled to Washington for The Saturday Evening Post to cover a speech by Senator Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy, who died this month at 89, was planning to announce that he was going to take on President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

Washington had been hit by an unexpected snow storm. Around the Capitol the snow lay unplowed and a mean, wet wind sprang up. And inside the building McCarthy, pale-skinned but robust, wearing a gray suit, stood before marble pillars in the Senate's vaulted caucus room.

"I intend to enter the Democratic presidential primaries in four states, Wisconsin, Oregon, California and Nevada," he said, speaking softly, almost diffidently. "My decision to challenge the president's position and the administration position has been strengthened by recent announcements of the administration, the evident intention to escalate and to intensify the war in Vietnam and on the other hand the absence of any positive indication or suggestion for a compromise."

After itemizing the cost of the Vietnam War, he concluded with the following: "I am not for peace at any price, but for an honorable, rational and political solution to this war."

Were there any questions? He wanted to know.

"Sir," a reporter began, "hasn't the administration sought the rational solution you suggest and offered to meet with Hanoi?"

"To suggest a meeting anytime, anywhere," McCarthy said, "is not an offer. An offer would be, 'Let's meet next Tuesday morning in Warsaw.' "

"Don't you believe," another reporter said, "that we should stop Communism?"

"Yes, I do," Gene McCarthy said. "and South Vietnam is the worst possible place to try."

"Sir, aren't you committing political suicide?"

He gave a small smile. "It won't be a case of suicide, but it might be execution." The assembled Washington press corps burst into giggles.

Where most campaigns open with trumpets, Eugene McCarthy's began with civility. He felt, he would tell me later, that the Kennedy style and what went with it, the troops of publicists, the hired cheering claques, the wheeling, the big-money dealing, demeaned the democratic process. He believed in the intelligence of the voters.

After the speech, the telephones in McCarthy's office rang all afternoon and supportive telegrams began to arrive. But no senator, not even so-called doves like Albert Gore Sr., J. William Fulbright and Wayne Morse, moved to his side. There were 248 Democratic members of the House. Only one, Don Edwards of California, spoke up immediately in favor of McCarthy. In opposing Johnson, McCarthy, who'd been in Congress nearly 20 years, stood alone.

A few days later a Gallup poll reported that 58 percent of those sampled had never so much as heard of McCarthy. The senator refused to be discouraged. "Had they asked," he said, "they would have found that fewer still have heard of St. Benedict of Nursia, but that detracts not one whit from his importance." (Benedict is the patriarch of Western monks and founded the Roman Catholic order that bears his name.)

Like a lot of other reporters, I decided McCarthy was a story, and so I started to follow him, which is how I wound up in Chicago the first weekend in December. He was giving an address to the National Conference of Concerned Democrats - that is, anti-Johnson, anti-war Democrats.

Before the speech, I watched McCarthy take questions in the lobby of the Hilton. Was he going to drop out if Bobby Kennedy ran? "If Kennedy moves, we'll have to see," he answered. "I don't know what he'll do. There is no conspiracy between us, no collusion, no common plan."

What about the militants? The reference was to extremist antiwar groups, gathering, mostly on campuses. McCarthy said, referring to his hosts, "This group is militant enough for me."

How about black militants?

"I'm indifferent to color."

Later, 2,000 people crowded into the Hilton ballroom to hear him. Perhaps 4,000 more milled outside in the cold, angry at being denied admittance by the fire department of Chicago's mayor, Richard J. Daley, no friend to political dissent.

Allard Lowenstein, the activist, delivered a fiery introduction. The style was rough, reasonably effective and totally uncongenial to the mood of Gene McCarthy, who was standing with his head bowed and his hands held before him, as if in prayer. When Lowenstein finished, McCarthy walked to the podium and read through his speech.

He told the delegates that the Dreyfus Affair in France demonstrated that a society cannot accept a single injustice without spreading corruption. The war in Vietnam was an amalgam of injustices.

He told them what the Punic Wars had done to Rome. Even though the legions were victorious, even though Roman troops under Scipio Africanus literally obliterated Carthage in 146 B.C., Roman society was deeply disrupted by the wars. Vietnam could be our Punic War. McCarthy did not attack Johnson nor did he raise his voice. The applause was subdued.

Someone asked afterward why he had not been more galvanic. "At this stage of the campaign," McCarthy said, "what would you have me galvanize them to do? At this point I am raising questions, hoping to get everybody to think."

This approach was not generally popular with rank-and-file political reporters. Many felt McCarthy was talking down to them. Others found him belligerently obscure. I mean, exactly who was this Dreyfus and who ever won a presidential campaign by invoking Scipio Africanus?

"Could you spell out that Roman name for us, senator?" one reporter asked. "Does it have a 'c' or a 'k'?"

"You could look it up in Toynbee," McCarthy said - and then a reporter asked him how to spell that.

I had a slightly different experience. After the Chicago trip, I met the candidate in a room - not a suite but a room - at the Plaza Hotel in New York to interview him for the Post article, which appeared in February 1968.

He greeted me pleasantly and said he was familiar with some of my sports writing and why in the world was I leaving the sunlit world of baseball for the murkiness of politics.

"I believe," I said, "it was Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that the world is larger than a diamond."

"Yes," McCarthy said. "Something like that. But if you have no objection, I'll mark you down as a sportswriter who's gone straight, a reformed sportswriter."

He got up from the desk and suggested I sit there, where it would be easier to take notes. He moved to a deep hotel chair.

"When did you decide to run for president?" I asked.

"When I heard Dean Rusk warn the people that one billion Chinese soldiers were poised to march into Vietnam, each one armed with a nuclear bomb."


He sat up straight. "When a hundred thousand American soldiers could not bring peace to Vietnam. That should have been the limit of our commitment. That should have made the administration aware of the limits of power."

"Won't Lyndon Johnson start a vendetta against you?"

"That's not Johnson's way," McCarthy said. "His way of eliminating people is to let them die on the vine. He doesn't waste time in the name of vengeance."

Once McCarthy and the president had been close. I cited a Johnson quotation: "Gene McCarthy is one of those uncommon men who puts his courage in the service of his country. He's the kind of man - as we say in the ranch country of Texas - who will go to the well with you."

McCarthy answered, "I'm still a good man to go to the well with," but, he added, "not to a wasteful war in Vietnam."

He then started to talk about poetry. "It's good to read poetry and not impractical. I suggest it is as important to read Sandburg as well as The Tribune, if you presume to understand the city of Chicago. It is important to have read Allen Tate's 'Ode to the Confederate Dead,' as well as the speeches of George Wallace, if you presume to understand the South."

I heard myself asking why he was putting his political life on the line.

He answered by way of Dylan Thomas. "Near the end of his life Dylan Thomas said immortality now mattered less to him than did the deaths of his friends." McCarthy looked straight at me. "My own political survival matters less than the deaths of other men."

I must have misted at his words, because he rose, walked to the desk and now his eyes possessed a twinkle. "If you want to get heavy," said Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, Democrat of Minnesota.

Roger Kahn is the author of the forthcoming "Into My Own," a memoir.

We need a few more politicians like Gene to question the War in Iraq! Wake up Democrats!

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