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Kitty Kelley

Kitty Kelley

Posted: August 9, 2010 04:41 PM

Smudging a Senator's Legacy

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Shortly after Senator Eugene J. McCarthy died in 2005 the age of 89, I became an honorary member of the committee starting a fellowship in McCarthy's name at his alma mater, Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

I had worked for McCarthy on his senate staff for four years before, during and after his first run for President, and more than forty years later I can still remember working late one cold night in November of 1967 during the era of the typewriter and mimeograph machine to prepare the press release announcing his decision to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson over his conduct of the war in Vietnam. No one knew then the violence that would erupt in the wake of one man standing up for peace: the roiling turmoil in the country, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and the police lock-down of the Democratic convention in Chicago.

McCarthy stood up to protest the war when no one else would. Others came in later as his campaign gathered momentum, but for many weeks he was alone, ridiculed by the press and avoided by politicians. For me, the image of that brave man standing by himself in the snows of New Hampshire put a picture to the words of Abraham Lincoln: "To sin by silence...makes cowards of men."

I admired Eugene McCarthy's courage and although I left his Senate staff after four years to accept a job as the researcher on the editorial page of the Washington Post, I remained an admirer. I was happy to host his 85th birthday party, delighted when he attended my book parties and honored to be asked to join those who supported a fellowship in his name at Saint John's University.

So it was with regret that I asked journalist Al Eisele, a Saint John's alumnus, to remove me from that list last week after I learned that Saint John's refused to let Minnesota columnist Nick Coleman use his appointment as a Senior McCarthy Fellow to publicly identify himself. "I don't want the McCarthy Center to be a divisive political battlefield," stated Matt Lindstrom, Director, Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at Saint John's University, "and I don't want Nick Coleman to be the leading public voice/image of the McCarthy Center."

Apparently conservative donors had objected to Mr. Coleman's liberal views and strongly expressed their objections to the university, which denies that political pressure drove them to deprive Mr. Coleman of publicly using his award as a Senior McCarthy Fellow as his identification. Whatever happened, it's clear that Saint John's has forgotten the principles that once informed the idealism of Eugene McCarthy, who believed that a university is to be an arena for the free expression of all views and that even those ideas which do not comport to orthodoxy must be heard in order to be understood. Ironically, it was at Saint John's that Eugene McCarthy first read the writings of Voltaire, the philosopher of the French Enlightenment, who said: "I do not agree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

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