Keen for Gene

When Eugene McCarthy died a month ago, I rushed to compose what I wished to be a meditation on what the man had meant to me, to my generation, and to our history. But eulogies always suffer from the press of deadlines, and so I decided to get an opinion of what I wrote from a truth-teller I've known since the 1968 campaign. I read my piece to John Callahan, a professor of English at Lewis & Clark College and the author of books on Ralph Ellison and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the harshest of the truth-tellers. Callahan, who coordinated McCarthy's primary effort in the Portland, Oregon, area in 1968, ruled against it, saying, "No, you are using Gene to settle some of your own old scores." He was right. Old scores are a hobby, a hematological lift for us '68ers.

I first met Gene in the fall of 1967, when a group of antiwar activists went to Washington to meet the person who would be the beneficiary of the Dump Johnson movement that was to convene in Chicago a few weeks later. Truth be told, Gene was almost no one's first choice for that role. He had never cut his cloth to other people's designs, and his independent streak was more idiosyncratic than populist. He was available, but he did not flatter or pose. And the peace movement was frantic. It had tried to enlist virtually everyone in the Senate who had uttered a peep against the war to run against LBJ, and each had declined. There was the preposterous last-ditch effort to persuade Martin Luther King Jr. to run. But the savior whom the kingmakers really desired was Bobby Kennedy. He was unwilling even to test the waters, and no one knew whether he was really against the war or still for it.

Gene's stand was characteristically clear, and he was willing to stake his career on the toppling of the president. But the specter of Bobby haunted the campaign. We were working with folk whom you knew might defect the moment the assassinated president's brother decided that his time had come. (And, when his time came, defect they did.) In a strange way, the Kennedy candidacy energized the "Clean for Gene" effort. The rivalry was old and deep. At the Democratic convention in 1960, McCarthy stirred liberals with his impassioned appeal to nominate Adlai Stevenson for the third time—a last-ditch attempt, with Eleanor Roosevelt as its symbolic leader, to deny JFK the nod. Stevenson was a sure loser in the general election, but the liberals had sufficient reason not to be eager for John Kennedy to be president. There was the ugly shadow of his father and the stunning fact of his brother having served an intimate stint in Joe McCarthy's legislative hanging court—and, by the way, when had John Kennedy ever stuck out his neck for a true liberal cause?

It is a shame that the 1968 campaign is mostly remembered for the bitterness between the Kennedy and McCarthy camps. After all, Gene took down a sitting president. Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection two days before McCarthy was sure to trounce him in the Wisconsin primary. Gene's popularity in the polls, even after Bobby's assassination on the night of the California primary, should be read as a confirmation that Americans were once ready to listen to quiet words and reasoned arguments. The diffidence of the poet-politician annoyed the political professionals, but it was intrinsic to his message. One should not seek the presidency in a frenzy, he seemed to be saying. When he would say that he was "willing to be president," one heard echoes of the Founding Fathers' own ideals of tempered ambition and their insistence upon the debt of politics to philosophical ideas. Gene was a Democrat who disciplined himself to republican virtue.

O, for someone like him in American politics now! I have never encountered anyone in politics who so knew his own mind. In 1968, before the California contest, several members of the campaign tried frantically to make time to prepare for the debate against Kennedy. Gene was eager for the debate, but he was contemptuous of prep routines. "My God, I've been in politics for 25 years, " he said. "I know what I believe, and I know how to say it. There will be no rehearsals, no practice drills." Almost unimaginable, no?

You might say that McCarthy lost the California debate, since he lost the primary by less than five points. Kennedy won among black and Latino voters by very substantial margins, even though he threw up a scare during the debate that McCarthy was proposing to move 10,000 blacks into Orange County. In his recent book, Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism, Dominic Sandbrook contends that, although McCarthy had more fundamental plans to deal with race and poverty, Kennedy won the minority vote by touching the emotional chords of black protest. The irony is that, in so doing, he lost his chance for a wider electorate. As Ronald Steel has reminded us, there was no black-white coalition behind Kennedy in California at all. And this was prophecy. Here lay the future predicament of the Democratic Party. Its most successful candidates within the party would not win among the white lower- middle class, the educated middle class, and the independents outside of it.

A few minutes after his victory statement at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was assassinated by a Palestinian terrorist. Gene went off to a monastery to reflect. I never again heard an unkind word from him about Bobby. Three weeks before the Chicago convention, George McGovern announced his own candidacy, scavenging among the Kennedy delegates. He won a pathetic 1461/2 delegates. The shambles of the convention and the riots—which Tom Hayden designed to prove the fascist nature of the U.S. state, as, earlier that spring, he had told Michael Walzer and me he would—left McGovern as Kennedy's heir apparent for 1972. And the Democrats have not yet recovered from the most startling defeat of any major party candidate in our history. When you hear liberals and Democrats blame U.S. policy for Islamic terrorism, you are hearing the McGovernite temper. In societies as in individuals, the survival capabilities of self-loathing are vast. But Gene, a genuinely original man, never traveled in those territories. There was something pure about him, but he was not an innocent.