The Puzzle of Gene McCarthy
As you've probably heard by now, former Senator Eugene McCarthy, Democrat of Minnesota, died this week at age 89. McCarthy to me was, not exactly a hero, but one of the more fascinating, compelling and ultimately frustrating American politicians of the modern era. He was a great believer in democracy and open engagement with the public, and an unapologetic snob and elitist. His political roots were in the populist Democratic Farmer-Labor party and he came to prominence as a champion of the midwestern aesthetic and heartland sensibility, but he spent the last several decades of his life, long after his political career effectively ended, in and around Washington, DC. Though he obviously wanted to be thought of as a statesman, a transcendent figure above the realm of grubby politics who trafficked in ideas, he undercut himself and compromised his own stature by working against his party's presidential nominee in 1976 and 1980, and often seemed more interested in his poetry and other pursuits than whatever was current in public life. And in his signature political moment of 1968, when he raised the standard for peace in Vietnam and tried to elevate a debate on the imperial presidency and America's role in the world, he activated the passion and dedication of millions of young idealists--while making it transparently clear that he himself would never fully commit to the political fray.
But as personally fascinating and contradictory as McCarthy was, in my opinion his political and historical significance was as the tribune of American liberalism who tested and ultimately defined its practical limits and the far boundaries of its strength. An Adlai Stevenson supporter through the 1950s who had made an impassioned plea with his fellow Democrats for Stevenson in 1960, McCarthy had cool relations with the Kennedys through the abbreviated JFK presidency; one theory I remember reading was that McCarthy, who had attended seminary as a young man and seriously considered a life in the priesthood, viewed them as insufficently Catholic. But through his Senate career, he had been a close ally of Lyndon Johnson, and in 1964 he pushed hard behind the scenes to be chosen as Johnson's vice-presidential running mate. When he lost out to fellow Minnesotan Hubert H. Humphrey, McCarthy began to turn against the president; by 1967, he was among the leading critics of the Vietnam War. As a cadre of Democratic activists led by a New Yorker named Allard Lowenstein began searching for a prominent national Democrat to oppose Johnson in the 1968 primary contest, McCarthy indicated his interest.
The man the activists wanted, of course, was Bobby Kennedy, who brought a much more compelling personal backstory as well as greater prominence and political heft. Kennedy hated Johnson and deplored the course of the war, but didn't believe he could win and feared the consequences, for his party and his subsequent career, of a break with the administration. McCarthy, who probably should have had the same concerns, evidently did not; by all accounts, he was bored in the Senate. One of the mysteries of the man is just how the factors of personal pique, ambition, and idealism added up in his decision to run against Johnson. With virtually no institutional support within the party and even less hope of victory, he declared toward the end of 1967.
If McCarthy had fared as poorly as was universally predicted then, the last 38 years of American history might have developed rather differently. But his campaign caught unexpected fire in New Hampshire, fueled by the tireless efforts of his college-age volunteers, the uncharacteristically maladroit political work of the Johnson administration, and--perhaps most important--the national trauma of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which while a military failure for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese put the lie to the administration's claims that victory in Vietnam was imminent. McCarthy won 42 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote and a majority of the state's delegates to the Democratic National Convention to be held that summer; within a few weeks, Robert Kennedy had joined the race, and Lyndon Johnson had dropped out of it.
The ensuing three-way race for the presidential nomination between McCarthy, Kennedy and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who ultimately won it, not only split the Democrats and cost them the 1968 election--nealy half of those who supported McCarthy or Kennedy, millions of otherwise-solid Democrats, stayed home in November as Humphrey lost an exceptionally close race to Richard Nixon--but opened up cleavages in the party that I don't think have ever been fully closed. Humphrey, a classical liberal who had great institutional support but limited popular appeal, was perceived (somewhat unfairly) as Lyndon Johnson's surrogate; I believe the meme that Democrats have no core principles substantially began with Humphrey. McCarthy, though, was arguably the originator of a different, but no less harmful, liberal conceit: the supremely arrogant and condescending figure who would have it his way, or not at all. After Kennedy's assassination in June 1968, he had a second chance to capture the public imagination; he passed it up, staying mostly silent. At the disastrous Chicago convention, he refused to work the delegates. After the convention, he essentially disappeared, writing about the World Series for Life magazine before offering an exceptionally tepid endorsement of Humphrey. He left the Senate two years later, and then commenced an increasingly pathetic series of half-assed quadrennial runs for the presidency--the last time, in 1992, when he was 76.
I sometimes think the one political trait Americans find truly unforgiveable is indifference, or the perception of it. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both won two terms in the White House, despite being detested by large segments of the electorate, because they projected as driven men. The individuals they defeated never demonstrated the same drive: think of George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in a 1992 debate, or John Kerry letting the Swift Boat attacks go unanswered for months in the summer of 2004. Gene McCarthy demonstrated a variant of that kind of passivity, at a time when the stakes were probably much higher. Personally, I find a lot to admire in McCarthy's stated view that he was merely the standard-bearer for a popular movement, who should not and would not campaign as a personality (much less against someone else's; McCarthy deplored the idea that his campaign was a manifestation of the "Dump Johnson" movement--though of course it was). But it showed an ignorance of how American politics worked then, and works now--or, more likely, an unwillingness to accept and operationalize that understanding. It's not difficult to argue that McCarthy's commitment to principle helped facilitate the serial tragedies of recent American history, from the additional seven years in Vietnam that followed the 1968 election to the subsequent, and still ongoing, war against the notion of activist, progressive government itself. His hated rival Robert Kennedy, though derided as opportunistic and unprincipled, came on as a fighter; if he'd lived, I believe the many compromises he might have made nevertheless would have added up to a much greater liberal legacy. Sometimes a willingness to engage and commit outweighs every other consideration.