TAC’s publishing schedule did not allow for a timely obituary of Eugene McCarthy, but the late senator deserves notice in these pages: his views—and particularly his long frustration with the limitations of two-party hegemony—have a great deal of common ground with this magazine.
There are inevitably some personal ties as well. In the winter of 1968, I was a student at a New Hampshire boarding school and with dozens of my classmates went out to canvass for McCarthy on the weekends. His strong New Hampshire primary performance against incumbent Lyndon Johnson—running almost entirely on an anti-Vietnam War plank—was enough to persuade Johnson to withdraw from the race and to entice Bobby Kennedy to throw his own hat into the ring. I recall little about the campaign besides the buttons and a large billboard in Manhattan showing McCarthy’s face and windblown hair, proclaiming something like “a breath of fresh air.” But I knew—or thought I did—enough about the Vietnam War to support any candidate who would stand against it. If you opposed the war in 1967 and early 1968, it was tremendously frustrating that there was almost no established politician who would stand up against it, seemingly no chance that it could be ended or even combated through electoral means, and that much of the vocal opposition to the war was monopolized by the hard Left. That would change over the next few years, but it was certainly McCarthy’s campaign that broke the establishment logjam.
Much has been written about McCarthy’s quixotic, almost diffident campaign, his seeming reluctance to be a leader in the normal political sense. The world of campaigns is rife with anecdotes about his “laziness”—his late rising, his refusal to say the same thing again and again, his general lack of doggedness and stamina as a candidate. I assume these charges were true, and yet it cannot be denied that he and only he among established political figures was willing to take the first plunge and take up the antiwar banner against Johnson in late 1967.
In his later years, his views—if not his political style—were rather Buchananite. He was long a believer that the United States should control its borders, writing in the 1990s an immigration-control polemic entitled A Colony of the World: the United States Today, taking issue with the bipartisan establishment idea that the U.S. should serve as a kind of drainage vessel for the surplus populations of other nations, and serving as an advisory-board member of the immigration-control group FAIR. He was a trade protectionist as well and naturally was skeptical about the Iraq War.
In the winter of 2000, when Pat Buchanan was running for president on the Reform Party ticket, Kara Hopkins and I had dinner with Gene McCarthy at Washington’s Jockey Club. He had spoken favorably of Buchanan’s presidential bid to a reporter from the L.A. Times, and it was our intent to feel out whether Gene would publicly endorse Pat or perhaps even sign on to an important advisory role in the campaign.
During the course of a delightful dinner, he commented—generally favorably—on the language and rhythm of Pat’s speeches and urged the campaign to do something to address “the issue of time.” He meant the way people are overscheduled in the modern world and don’t have time to savor life’s experiences. He was right, though it was hard for us to think of a four-point plan that might speak to the issue. He deferred a decision on the endorsement question, letting us know that Jesse Ventura, his home state’s governor and a player in the complicated and invariably vicious internecine wars of the Reform Party, had been extremely gracious to him recently. What was unsaid was that Ventura and the Reformers who were then backing Buchanan were on opposing sides. It was too bad—I think Gene could have connected in a public way the various strands of Buchananism, which is far more than a right-wing phenomenon, much better than the campaign was able to do on its own.
McCarthy was old then, but his mind was sharp. After the dinner, Kara drove him home to his Washington apartment and helped him up the outer steps, terrified that he would fall and that she would forever go down in history as the person on the scene at Gene McCarthy’s death.
1968 is supposed to be a sort of devil year in the conservative calendar, akin almost to 1789 and 1917. But there was something special and deeply democratic about a poetic, intelligent senator stepping forward to mobilize and give political focus to all that unrepresented sentiment. Pat Buchanan has written recently that a Gene McCarthy for our day will emerge soon. We should be so fortunate.