December 13, 2005
The Poet Who Took On LBJ
you so. ... Gone? Who will swear you wouldn't have
done good to the country, that fulfillment wouldn't have
done good to you.
Lowell, ``For Eugene McCarthy'' (July 1968)
-- By August 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy was gone and his supporters
were left to wonder how -- whether -- his fulfillment was connected
to doing good to the country. When the Democratic convention nominated
another Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey -- who in 1964 won the vice
presidential nomination McCarthy had craved -- McCarthy went to
the south of France, then covered the World Series for Life magazine.
Had he campaigned for Humphrey, who narrowly lost, there probably
would have been no Nixon presidency.
died last Saturday in his 90th year, in this city which he sometimes
seemed to include in his capacious disdain but which, for a while,
he leavened with a distinctive sensibility. In 1980 he endorsed
Ronald Reagan, reasoning that Reagan could not be worse than Jimmy
Carter. But even in 1968 he had a sometimes ill-disguised disdain
for many who flocked to his diffidently unfurled banner.
by Vietnam policy, he laconically announced himself ``willing''
to be an ``adequate'' president, and went to New Hampshire to
unseat his party's president. McCarthy got 41.9 percent of the
vote. Johnson got 49.6 percent -- all write-ins; his name was
not on the ballot -- and three weeks later withdrew from the race.
1968 achievement elevated New Hampshire's primary to the status
it has subsequently enjoyed. His death occurred the day the Democratic
Party gingerly suggested modifying its primary schedule in a way
that might diminish New Hampshire's potency.
status of Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary as the first
two nominating events testifies to the power of the mere passage
of time to sanctify the accidental, even the unreasonable. Now
the Democratic Party suggests allowing one or two states to hold
caucuses -- not primaries -- between Iowa and New Hampshire.
against caucuses is that they take hours, often at night, and
thus disproportionately attract the ideologically fervid -- not
what the Democratic Party needs. The case against New Hampshire's
primary is that its power is disproportionate for a state so unrepresentative
of America's demographic complexities. The case for New Hampshire
can be put in a name: Gene McCarthy. The small state gives an
unknown underdog challenger, practicing retail politics, a fighting
insurgency, the most luminous memory of many aging liberals, would
today be impossible -- criminal, actually -- thanks to the recent
``reform'' most cherished by liberals, the McCain-Feingold campaign
regulations. McCarthy's audacious challenge to an incumbent president
was utterly dependent on large early contributions from five rich
liberals. Stewart Mott's $210,000 would be more than $1.2 million
in today's dollars. McCain-Feingold codifies two absurdities:
large contributions are inherently evil, and political money can
be limited without limiting political speech. McCain-Feingold
criminalizes the sort of seed money that enabled McCarthy to be
heard. Under McCain-Feingold's current limit of $2,100 per contributor,
McCarthy's top five contributors combined could have given just
$10,500, which in 1968 dollars would have been just $1,834.30.
But, then, McCain-Feingold was written by incumbents to protect
what they cherish: themselves.
first seized national attention with a theatrical act, a gesture
of elegant futility. At the 1960 convention, when John Kennedy's
nomination was already certain, McCarthy delivered an eloquent
philippic urging a third nomination for the man who had been trounced
in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson.
and problematic, Stevenson was the intelligentsia's darling and
a harbinger of liberalism curdled by condescension toward ordinary
Americans. When an aide assured Stevenson he had the votes of
thinking people, Stevenson quipped: But I need a majority. A majority
of the disdained?
acerbic wit sometimes slid into unpleasantness, as when, after
Gov. George Romney, the Michigan Republican, said that briefers
in Vietnam had ``brainwashed'' him, McCarthy said that surely
a light rinse would have sufficed. McCarthy's wit revealed an
aptitude for condescension, an aptitude that charmed intellectuals
but most Americans condescended to.
poet, McCarthy's mordant ``The Tamarack'' surely summarized his
experience of being beaten by Robert Kennedy after New Hampshire:
tamarack tree is the saddest tree of all;
it is the first tree to invade the swamp,
and when it makes the soil dry enough,
the other trees come and kill it.
his subsequent lackadaisical presidential campaigns. After 1968,
he adhered to the fourth of the commandments in his ``10 Commandments'':
not relight a candle
whose flame has drowned
in its own excess of wax.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group