Eugene McCarthy and Richard Pryor: The Uncommon Thread Between Them

12/10/2005 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Both of these giants, men I (and many of you) admired, both passed from this plane of existence this weekend.

I know that many of you might not readily recognize any comparison between a philosophically minded political thinker who challenged our society to shed its fear-fueled collective reptilian brain and a comedian who liked to tell bawdy jokes about cocaine, loose women, and various sub-navel exploits.

In some ways, both McCarthy and Pryor had more in common than you might have expected. Both were brilliant visionaries challenged what was then the norm:

McCarthy was not like other "liberal" politicians who embraced the Vietnam War not out of a fear that not doing so would cause South Vietnam to fall like a domino, but out of a political calculation that not doing so would cost them blue-collar votes. McCarthy was a man who read philosophy rather than focus group charts like his contemporaries- and I daresay current - "liberals" like Al Gore and John Kerry did and still do.

McCarthy's thinking was embraced not by political tacticians, but by others who let themselves expand their minds to envision a more ideal world not run by fear of Communism, but by our better nature.

I must say that some of those who found themselves rejecting formulaic liberal solutions in favor of newer thinking like McCarthy were opened up to those possibilities by more expansive thought processes made possible by some of the recreational indulgences of that era.

And Richard Pryor? It was some of those same recreational indulgences that transformed Pryor from a boring, trite comedian on "Ed Sullivan" to a voice of comedic brilliance that would transcend race and class.

Yet just as some of us in our society wound up becoming dependent on those recreational indulgences (pot) - and eventually became captive to even more harmful indulgences, Pryor lost his brilliance, his relevance, five wives (his widow was his sixth) and finally his life to the corrosive effects of those habits and the multiple sclerosis that some people - accurately or inaccurately- feel those habits hastened.

So, as one who came socially of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and who saw some of those indulgences, I ask myself if, in Pryor's done-to-soon passing, we are seeing the end result of that era's excess. Excess symbolized by a man who let those excesses stimulate his brain and push his art forward until those excesses drained the life out of his body. Another voice of artistic brilliance lost to excess: a valuable lesson going forward.

How many of today's young and brilliant creative class- who lean on excesses for stimulation, will learn from Pryor's flameout, and the lessons that teaches us?

And, as one who came politically of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and who saw some of those injustices Eugene McCarthy tried to teach us about, I have to ask how many of today's politicians will remember McCarthy's pronouncements about an unjust war, and the lessons that teaches us?

Two very different men, but thinkers both. Men whose lives still teach us, even as their lives have ended.