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An Ambivalent Hero 

Gene McCarthy and standing down a president and his war

Thursday, Dec 15 2005
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Not content simply to defend the president’s war, Senator Joe Lieberman is now scolding those who criticize it. In times of war, he says, “politics should stop at the water’s edge.”

Fortunately, that’s not been the experience of Lieberman’s country, where now and then leaders have stepped forward to defend their nation’s honor by breaking with their wartime presidents. Lincoln did it when, as a congressman from Illinois, he excoriated President Polk for his war in Mexico. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy did it when they attacked Lyndon Johnson for his war in Vietnam.

And that is most certainly what Eugene McCarthy, who died last Saturday at 89, did when he announced he would run against an incumbent president from his own party because Johnson’s war was destroying Vietnam and America’s spirit, with no good end in sight. When McCarthy declared his candidacy, it was widely viewed as the most quixotic of ventures. Indeed, that may have been one reason why it appealed to McCarthy. “There comes a time,” he said, “when an honorable man simply has to raise the flag.”

And for a time, it seemed that this most complex of political figures viewed his presidential candidacy as more an act of moral witness than a full-blooded campaign. When he wished, he could be eloquent and moving as few of our leaders have been since. He could speak of taking “our steel and bombs from this land of grass and thatched huts”; he told us that he found his purpose in the vision of Yeats’ aviator, and ours in Whitman’s hope for a boisterous, democratic America. But often as not, he pulled back, restrained his oratory, shortened his days and shunned the rituals of the campaign trail. He was an oxymoron without precedent: the alienated leader of a great, national crusade.

But crusade it was. How could it be otherwise, as every night brought us images of American forces destroying villages to save them? Then Tet happened, and Johnson’s support fell like a stone, and college students flocked to New Hampshire to walk door to door for their champion: the professorial senator with the liberal record and the coruscating wit, whose only flaw was that he was not sure that he wished to be their champion. But for a brief moment in early ’68, his resolve mattered more than his ambivalence: He wounded Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire, defeated him in Wisconsin, knocked him out of the race — and brought an emboldened Robert Kennedy into it.

Like many political people who lately and unexpectedly have found themselves middle-aged, I have Gene McCarthy to thank for my entry into the world of electoral politics. Los Angeles high schools had mid-year graduations in the 1960s, and when they threw me out into the world in January of ’68, with college not starting until September, I could think of nothing better to do than to try to unseat a president and stop his war.


So, at a ripe old 17, I signed on with Gene, and leafleted and talked to voters (those polite enough to listen to a 17-year-old) and did some research on matters logistical and even political. I ended up in Chicago, rousted by Mayor Daley’s cops who, on the convention’s final night, having run out of people to beat up on the street, charged up to the 15th floor of the Conrad Hilton Hotel to clear out McCarthy’s junior staff.

And even with that rude finale, I loved every minute of it. For a kid on the cusp of college, for a generation of young people whom the war had forced into politics, McCarthy’s campaign offered an immersion into both a larger reality and a heightened romanticism. It was not an entirely sustainable combination, and in the years since, I’ve tried to convince myself that had I been older — 20, say — and wiser, I would have jumped over to Bobby, who somehow could win over both white workers and black militants, once he came in.

But I’m not certain I would have. What McCarthy — and Bobby Kennedy, and George McGovern — provided my generation was a sense of empowered idealism, of political possibility, of loyalty to the most decent purposes a nation can have. I tried telling that once to McCarthy, and thanking him, when I was covering the ’92 New Hampshire primary, and he had come up, in what may have been his last perfunctory stab at a candidacy, to the scene of his unalterable glory, where once he had enabled a people to stand down a president and his war. It is kindest to think of McCarthy at that lambent moment in March of ’68, before he grew too angry at the Kennedys and was too “mired in complexity” (his own self-assessment) to advance his cause any further. He was, right then, a hero, and we are, as Brecht would have it, an unhappy land that could use some heroes today.

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