“Gene just isn’t a nice person.”
You know you are not in for a Doris Kearns Goodwin/David McCullough hagiography when a biographer uses as an epigraph a character assessment by the thuggish Marilyn-mauling (Joe) McCarthyite RFK. (Isn’t the three-letter monogram usually a tip-off to a sinister force?)
In March 1968, Eugene McCarthy earned the everlasting gratitude of American patriots when he came within a beagle’s ear of defeating Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, thus forcing into retirement one of the more repulsive monograms ever to occupy the presidency. “For his youthful volunteers, McCarthy was a brave and dashing champion who would unseat the brutal Johnson and bring a swift and just end to the carnage of the Vietnam War,” writes Dominic Sandbrook, McCarthy’s 30-year-old English biographer; and Sandbrook is eager to show us just how wrong his young followers were. His McCarthy is a “frivolous maverick” whose frivolity consisted of such ridiculous acts as writing poetry and calling for the legalization of marijuana and whose maverickness manifested itself in lèse majesté remarks directed at such eminences as Walter Mondale, LBJ (“a barbarian”), and, most damningly, John F. Kennedy (“shallow,...