By:Bill Kauffman | May 10, 2018
“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, unintelligent, and unequipped for high office, his reputation bloated with his father’s money,” in Sandbrook’s paraphrase).
Born in 1916, Eugene McCarthy enjoyed a happy, baseball-playing childhood in the small German-Irish Catholic town of Watkins, Minnesota, and studied with the Benedictine monks at nearby St. John’s University. The strength of Sandbrook’s book lies in establishing just how deeply Catholic was the McCarthy matrix. At St. John’s, where McCarthy later taught, the air was fresh with the influence of the saintly Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement, which gently preached a cooperativist anarchism. The bright, acerbic McCarthy was much taken with his Church’s rural life initiatives, which encouraged small-scale farming, home production, and the village economy. In best Midwestern fashion, McCarthy was also an isolationist pacifist before Pearl Harbor.
McCarthy read Chesterton, Belloc, and the Catholic distributists who were seeking humane and decentralist alternatives to communism, fascism, and corporate capitalism. He bought 80 acres of land from his dad and planned a cooperative farming community. Alas, Gene and his wife Abigail turned out to be typewriter agrarians who would rather read about the land than labor in it; and, in a not-so-simple twist of fate, he fell into the trade of politics.
McCarthy’s mentor, Fr. Virgil Michel, called communism “an all-devouring, godless collectivism . . . certain to crush all human and spiritual values.” Father Michel was right on the money, of course. But where the good monk would combat communism in the Catholic Worker way, through the establishment of human-scale institutions compatible with a Christian anarchism, young Gene McCarthy joined the social democrat Hubert Humphrey in purging Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of its Henry Wallace lefties, narrowing “the permissible range of political debate within Minnesota,” as one historian has noted, and making the Upper Midwest safe for Harry Truman. Given that Nagasaki Harry ranks right down there with Woodrow Wilson and LBJ as a presidential enemy of liberty, one wonders: Would we really have been worse off had the muddleheaded Henry Wallace Democrats not been hunted down like rats by the welfare-warfare liberals of Americans for Democratic Action?
In any event, McCarthy was elected to Congress from St. Paul in 1948: News of his victory came by phone as he and his supporters were saying the rosary. He ran as a “quintessential Fair Deal liberal,” and his subsequent record was every bit as dreary as one would expect. If it cost money, McCarthy voted for it, without fail, down the line; from 1949-58, he voted “right” on all 56 of the AFL-CIO’s “key votes.” In foreign affairs, he traded the grand Shipstead-Lindbergh isolationist tradition of Minnesota for Humphrey interventionism, scolding Taft conservatives for their “failure to recognize the basic evil of communism.” McCarthy even spoke in favor of HHH’s 1954 bill to ban the Communist Party.
McCarthy’s personal style was cool, detached, ironic: One almost expects to find photos of him shooting heroin with Johnny Depp. He was a loner, a cynical wit, handsome star of the House Democratic baseball team and chronic skipper of the tedious meetings of the Post Office Committee.
Elected to the Senate in 1958, “he struck observers as listless and lazy.” He also despised the Kennedys—a potential problem strategy for a politician fated someday to draw a biographer who believes that Teddy Kennedy is a “bright, attractive” man. Sandbrook ascribes McCarthy’s antipathy to JFK to “sheer jealousy,” though many of his coreligionists shared McCarthy’s belief that the first Catholic president should not be a priapic skirt-chasing male bimbo.
We search McCarthy’s first 20 years in politics in vain for evidence of the magnificently inspiring Catholic anarchism of his youth. By 1960, Gene McCarthy was writing that “Government has a positive and natural function to assist man in the pursuit of perfection and happiness”—an idea wholly at odds with the Catholic Worker and, in fact, the writing on the road signs to school busing, urban renewal, and the progressive programs that destroyed much of American community life in the Vital Center years. As a party-line Democrat, McCarthy had only one criticism of internationalist Republicans: They did not spend enough money on foreign aid. Like JFK, he slammed President Eisenhower for penny-pinching on the military-industrial complex. “Nowhere did he contemplate the limits of American power or the morality of intervention overseas,” writes Sandbrook. Then came Vietnam, and, with it, the salutary influence of the courageous Arkansas Democratic Sen. William Fulbright, a kind of Tory Confederate anti-imperialist whose chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee did so much to smash the suffocating consensus of the early 1960’s.
Vietnam changed McCarthy, drew him back, at least partway, to his pacific roots. In 1964, he was an unquestioning supporter of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; by 1968, he was saying that “America’s contribution to world civilization must be more than a continuous performance demonstration that we can police the planet.” Tentatively, then with gusto, he began uttering “the first criticism of the Cold War orthodoxy by a major candidate in a presidential campaign since 1948.” Since, that is, Henry Wallace.
When Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach haughtily informed Fulbright’s committee that a presidential declaration of war was “outmoded in the international arena,” McCarthy walked out of the room and told a reporter, “Someone’s got to take them on. And if I have to run for president to do it, I’m going to do it.” One of the monks at St. John’s told McCarthy in late 1967, “Vir-iliter agite” (“Act manfully”). He did. And in so doing, he gave antiwar patriots who believed in the two-party system a meaningful choice in 1968. (Where were the Gene McCarthys in the 2004 Republican Party?) “They say I’m committing political suicide,” said McCarthy as he launched his campaign. “Well, I’d rather do that and face up to the wrongness of the war than die of political old age.”
McCarthy raised a pile of Wall Street money from antiwar businessmen, which is perhaps why he later opposed campaign-finance reform so strenuously. The press claimed that hippies were forsaking hirsuteness by the communeful and going “Clean for Gene,” but most of his young supporters were student-council-president-types, earnest liberals who preferred “Feelin’ Groovy” to “Surrealistic Pillow.”
On March 12, 1968, McCarthy polled 42.4 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, coming within 230 votes of LBJ if one includes Republican write-ins. Four days later, the timid Bobby Kennedy entered the race. At month’s end, the homicidal Texan in the White House announced that he would not be a candidate for reelection.
McCarthy was a charmingly diffident candidate. He cancelled dawn handshaking sessions at factory gates because “I’m not really a morning person.” He preferred the company of the pacifist poet Robert Lowell to that of the usual officious aides. Asked in 1968 for his greatest political influence—any Democrat with an ounce of insincerity would have said FDR or JFK—McCarthy cited Edmund Burke, and, indeed, in the Burkean idea of “little platoons,” we can see an alternative to the folding, bending, spindling, mutilating ideology of the Johnson-Humphrey Democrats.
Norman Mailer, as usual, hit McCarthy’s nail on the head: “He was probably, left to his own inclinations, the most serious conservative to run for nomination since Robert Taft.” It is a measure of the nescience and cowardice of the modern American right that only the left-wing conservatives, the Dwight Macdonalds and Mailers, appreciated McCarthy; the conmen of the organized right were hustling for jobs in the Nixon campaign.
McCarthy’s conception of the presidency was constitutional. Sandbrook, as if under the malign influence of James Barber, characterizes it as “negative, even passive.” McCarthy believed in a one-term “depersonalized” presidency; the biggest problem in government, he said, was “the concentration of power in the executive.” He once said that two hours per day should be sufficient for a president to do all his necessary work, and he wasn’t kidding.
In a perceptive observation in this informative if maddening book, Sandbrook writes that “it appeared that McCarthy was reaching back to the old liberal drive to curtail the rise of central power over the individual, an impulse that many in the 1960s saw as conservative rather than liberal.” McCarthy scorned the “bureaucratic control” that “deprives the individual of all sense of individual initiative, and nourishes the belief that he can do nothing if it is not planned and organized and somehow fitted into a pattern of action.”
I do not want to misrepresent McCarthy as some sort of quasilibertarian Democrat. He betrayed his rural roots and demanded massive government spending on cities. In contrast to Bobby Kennedy, with his occasional concern for neighborhood integrity, McCarthy urged the central state to uproot “large numbers of Negro workers and their families to jobs and housing opportunities in the nation’s suburbs,” a piece of social engineering that would reduce human beings to the status of chessboard pawns, significant only in that they are black or white.
Sandbrook is constantly exasperated by McCarthy’s refusal to take himself seriously. He is—Sandbrook tells us repeatedly—“frivolous.” Asked by Johnny Carson if he would be a good president, candidate McCarthy replies: “I think I would be adequate.” Horrors: self-deprecation! What will the World Community think?
And the frivolities just keep on coming. We are informed that McCarthy “kept the New York Times columnist James Reston waiting while he composed a poem about wolverines.” Well, what man born with a living soul wouldn’t do that?
When McCarthy left the Senate in 1970, one supporter fumed, “I cannot understand how he could abandon a useful career to indulge himself in a fancied talent for poetry.” Tell such a fellow that making poetry is a far more beautiful and also more useful endeavor than making laws, and he will look at you the way George W. Bush might look at a page of Faulkner (with dull incomprehension mixed with a subsurface fury).
McCarthy never again came close to the Rose Garden (which he promised to replace with “humble vegetables,” since “You’d have trouble announcing war in a cabbage patch”). He ran a listless campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1972 and then set up the Committee for a Constitutional Presidency—great name—which metamorphosed into his independent campaign of 1976.
With “mischievous glee,” McCarthy endorsed Reagan in 1980. The Democrats, he said, had become “the party of little other than the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.” From his stone farmhouse at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he ran whimsical campaigns in 1988 and 1992, confirming the conventional view that
he was an unruly, disloyal eccentric who had squandered his own reputation in a series of self-indulgent campaigns that never ended in victory and had little impact on American politics and society.
That describes another quadrennial candidate from Minnesota, the silly internationalist Republican Harold Stassen, but not Eugene McCarthy. My God, Sandbrook: McCarthy slew LBJ, for which he still deserves the thanks of any American this side of Paul Wolfowitz. And, in later years, he proposed solutions—some creative, others eccentric, the best rooted in his radical reactionary Catholic youth—to the maldistribution of wealth and power in these United States.
“There is not always honor in failure,” concludes Sandbrook. Gene McCarthy, we are to believe, was a dishonorable failure, an arrogant, jealous, spiteful man who ought to have played the good soldier. He should have been a “professional, respectable and dedicated Democratic politician” who supported JFK, HHH, Muskie, Mondale, and the rest of his era’s Democratic colossi. That he went into opposition—that, motivated by his Catholic conscience and his region’s glorious radical lineage, he finally came to understand that the American Empire is the enemy of the American people—damns him in the court histories.
Well, to hell with them. Eugene McCar-thy stood up to the machine; he walked out of the party; like the noble Senator Fulbright, he took his stand for the republic. Whatever his personal crotchets, he was an American patriot. And, in case you haven’t noticed, they are in damned short supply in Washington, D.C., these days.
From the November 2004 issue of Chronicles.
[Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism, by Dominic Sandbrook (New York: Knopf) 397 pp., $25.95]