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Lessons on Wartime Leadership from Eugene McCarthy

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The last time I saw Eugene McCarthy was in July, and we didn't have much of a conversation. Parkinson's disease and old age had dimmed the witty and philosophical voice that always left me feeling ahead of where we'd started out.

Which doesn't mean Gene didn't still manage to communicate some items of importance, despite the long silences. I'd known the great political insurgent of 1968 for some 15 years, but there were certain things he felt about baseball, politics and Vietnam that had eluded me until that hot summer morning in Washington.

George McGovern, McCarthy's chief competitor for the hearts and minds of the anti-war movement, once remarked to me that every library is an education -- in itself and about its owner -- and Gene's small bookcase, in a corner of his modest assisted-living apartment, was a fine example. I wasn't surprised that McCarthy the published poet was surrounded with poetry, including collections by W.B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh and Robert Lowell. And since this physically imposing man, even gravely ill, seemed indestructible, it was fitting to find a book called The Indestructible Irish.

What did surprise me was the framed Bronze Star and hand-written note hung on the wall above the bookcase, to the left of Gene's easy chair. While he dozed, I transcribed the scrawled cursive message -- with difficulty, because so many words were crossed out and misspelled. Corroborated by McCarthy's daughter, Ellen, this is what I think it said:

"I received a medal for valor in Vietnam. But valor is a corollary of morality and this war is not moral. It has corrupted the men who fight it; it has divided the nation which conceived it.

"I cannot begin to recount the number of [disdainful/distasteful] tasks I witnessed American soldiers perform, including the beating of women and children and the corruption of an entire population. I therefore cannot in clear conscience retain this reward for actions which in essence serve to suppress the freedom of the Vietnamese people."

The unsigned declaration, written on a UNICEF card illustrated by a Japanese painting titled Winter, by Kichiemon Okamura, and the medal were apparently handed to McCarthy at a rally during the '68 campaign by a Vietnam veteran, but nobody, including Gene, remembered exactly where or when. Whatever its provenance, the note's place of honor contradicted the critics who found McCarthy too reserved, too intellectual and ironic -- an allegedly arrogant man who thought himself above ordinary politics.

Certainly, Gene was no glad-hander, and he refused to pander in the Bobby Kennedy manner to ethnic and racial sentimentality. But I found McCarthy authentically warm, especially in the way he listened and spoke; he just didn't grandstand his emotions in the conventional way of so many politicians.

For contrast, it's worth recalling his 1968 debate on ABC TV with RFK, just before the California primary (and Kennedy's assassination), in which McCarthy promoted his radical idea for building public housing in the suburbs (where the new jobs were being created) as the best way to break up racial segregation, which he called "practical apartheid." Supposedly more passionate in his sympathy for oppressed minorities, Kennedy, at his demagogic worst, contemptuously responded, "I mean, you say you're going to take ten thousand black people and move them into [overwhelmingly white] Orange County."

Having already said that "there was no excuse for the riots" of summer 1967, Kennedy also made a revealing comment when asked about his plans for localized private-sector involvement to help ghetto-bound blacks, for whom he said an abrupt move to the suburbs would be "catastrophic," because of their lack of education, income and job opportunities. "Well," said Kennedy, he wanted private investment in "urban areas where there is unemployment or where people are on welfare and in the rural areas of the United States, so that you keep people where they are at the present time."

McCarthy's mean-spirited biographer, Dominic Sandbrook (Eugene McCarthy and the Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism), reports, without irony, that the sainted Kennedy once complained that McCarthy just "wasn't a very nice man." Coming from the former minority counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt, it almost makes me wish for stronger libel laws.

The main thing about Eugene McCarthy is that he actually meant what he said when he slipped the iron harness of party loyalty to run against Democratic President Johnson. There's nothing unconcerned or aloof about challenging an incumbent president, particularly when he's as intimidating and vengeful as LBJ. Far more than his bitter rival Kennedy, McCarthy was his own man, at least as courageous as Bobby was charismatic.

Though he functioned well enough within party politics, McCarthy was not at heart an organization man. He nevertheless tried to depersonalize his rebellion, insisting that he ran for president largely to defend the Senate as an institution and the constitutional prerogatives he believed had been abused by Johnson. Well before Richard Nixon's "imperial presidency," McCarthy was arguing that the hugely expanded post-war power of the executive branch needed to be reduced.

But imagine the sheer guts (not to mention the political prescience) required to announce your candidacy for president in November 1967, before the Tet Offensive, when hardly anyone in the Democratic-controlled Senate had broken with LBJ on Vietnam. Sandbrook writes that in December a Harris poll showed Johnson leading McCarthy 63 to 17 percent, "with a large majority also backing the escalation of the war." Four months later, McCarthy had driven Johnson from the race and completely transformed the debate on Vietnam.

McCarthy paid for his disloyalty to his party and to conventional wisdom. I think Kennedy's opportunistic entry into the race, after McCarthy had made it safe, was as much a bid to halt a McCarthy/Reform takeover of the party as it was a manifestation of Kennedy's personal ambition. The regular Democrats -- represented after LBJ's withdrawal by Vice President Hubert Humphrey -- had good reason to fear a McCarthy victory. The senior senator from Minnesota had declared his intention to open up the party to youth and minorities, hold biannual conventions and, to the horror of the bosses, make it more internally democratic.

Sometimes Gene disappointed. I wish he'd fought to keep his Senate seat in 1970, though I can understand his political thinking and his alienation. Humphrey, Minnesota's favorite son, wanted his old seat back and would probably have challenged him.

Moreover, the party leadership and many journalists tried to pin the blame for Humphrey's narrow loss to Richard Nixon on McCarthy's late endorsement of his fellow Minnesotan. This was patently absurd: Humphrey was beaten by LBJ's refusal to modify his self-defeating Vietnam policy and by his own excruciating reluctance to break with the president on the war. Humphrey's famous Salt Lake City speech -- in which with George Ball's help he finally advanced a more dovish position, against his master's wishes -- combined with Johnson's Oct. 31 halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, caused a surge that fell just short of putting Humphrey over the top. But the smear against McCarthy stuck, and he never recovered politically.

I also wish Gene hadn't run against Jimmy Carter (as an independent, in 1976) and endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980 -- I think, like me, he failed to see in Carter a kindred spirit of reform. After all, Carter was bloodied and weakened in the 1980s primaries by another Kennedy (Ted), who had been egged on by party regulars who despised Carter's independence.

But I'd rather dwell on the hope and excitement that McCarthy's crusade of reason ignited in me and my family during the violent, disorienting year of 1968. In my Cook County, Ill., congressional district (where we were represented by Donald Rumsfeld), wearing a blue-and-white McCarthy button not only put you with the good guys for peace; it placed you in opposition to the racist, pro-war political machine of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

After LBJ's withdrawal, on March 31, 1968, a McCarthy presidency seemed miraculously possible; in August, when Gene lost to Humphrey amidst Daley's "police riot" at the Chicago Democratic convention, the pain and disappointment in the air were palpable.

McCarthy's death, last month, also caused a lot of pain -- his son Michael told me that staff members at his Georgetown nursing home came into Gene's apartment and wept. But it will hurt a little less at the National Cathedral next Saturday, when friends and admirers gather for Gene's memorial service.

I hope there's a huge turnout -- that nobody lets political ambivalence interfere with honoring this remarkable man. During our final visit, Gene did manage to whisper an instructive anecdote about fair-weather fans and the ephemeral nature of public life. He was reminiscing about playing minor-league baseball in Watkins, Minn., and I asked him if his father, Michael, a cattle broker who traveled a lot, often came to watch him play.

No, Gene said with a faint smile; his father had had no interest in baseball. "He showed up when we started winning."

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.