"Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important." --Eugene McCarthy
This weekend Eugene McCarthy went gentle into that good night. He served in the House for ten years and as a senator from Minnesota from 1959 to 1971. He was another destructively frank man who saw no crime in saying whatever he was thinking. It may be a price of mass democracy, that truth is so little valued
I was a few years too young to go "Clean for Gene", being still a 8th grader. Poor Leonard Nimoy made a campaign visit to Benton Harbor (it was still a viable town in those days) for McCarthy in 1968. Instead of a swell of opposition to the Vietnam war, there I was, hobbit high and red-haired, not even old enough for the school paper, asking him to autograph a paperback called "The Making of Star Trek", and asking if "Star Trek" would be revived. "Not... very... likely..." he growled. Little did we know.
Despite my not-yet-adolescent faux pas, I did know who Eugene McCarthy was, thanks to "Pogo". Walt Kelly was caricaturing McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson and sadly as it turned out, Bobby Kennedy during the primaries. Those cartoons are collected in "Equal Time for Pogo". McCarthy was drawn as a tiny White Knight on a miniature horse. Bobby kept trying to seize the reins.
The White Knight didn't plan on winning the presidency, in fact he didn't win the New Hampshire primary that myth credits him-- but he won so many anti-war votes that the tired Lyndon Johnson, that weird Shakespearean dinosaur, dropped out of the race. Martin Luther King was killed (by a white racist), Bobby Kennedy was killed (by a Palestinian terrorist; not even James Ellroy could have seen that one). Mainstream democrats of the era, resembling Joe Leiberman more than FDR or Truman, gave the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, who had thrown away any credibility he had by supporting LBJ.
And then the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago showed all the ugliness the culture was capable of inflicting on its own. Before Chicago, it was black kids and sympathetyic Jews that were getting their heads busted. In Chicago, even that pretense-- that the rage was aimed at someone else's children-- was yanked away. My first girlfriend, still-sweet Ruth Mendel, then a 7th grader, was shopping in Chicago with her parents. When they became separated on Michigan Avenue and the police came through, and she tried to find her parents, people wouldn't let her in the door, believing her in her jeans and youth to be one of the rioters.
Everybody was a little crazy after that, and because McCarthy was a little saner than most, he was marginalized by the Conventional Wisdom after that. He wrote poetry, after all, and did't suffer fools gladly, a trait profoundly missed on the Sunday morning talk shows.
I knew Eugene McCarthy as a sharp-tongued foxy grandpa on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" show in the 1970's, vaguely occuping the niche now filled by Lewis Black, who, because he holds no political office, can safely point out that the emperors have no clothes and there's muck sticking to their toes. McCarthy achieved immortality with the truth about football-- a point so obvious that even football fans quote him-- and maybe helped stopped an expensive war from getting even worse, and was funny even when he must have been in despair. He wrote 21 books. He was the first member of Congress to take on Joe McCarthy. He was the one who McCarthy who inserted Eisenhower’s speech about the "military-industrial complex" into the Congressional Record. God bless.
"It is dangerous for a national candidate to say things that people might remember."
"The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty."
"I'm sorry I was right."