Monday, December 12, 2005

Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005: Rest, Perturbed Spirit

The comic Richard Pryor and the former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy died the same day. It says something that the Sun-Times ran with Pryor’s “loss” on its front page, agonizing about how we can make it without Pryor who almost killed himself in a drug-inducted experiment with cocaine. The Trib and The New York Times played it right. Eugene McCarthy and I were friends for many years but I have to say that only on reflection after our last meeting did I thoroughly understand him: it took a long time. I knew him for roughly 50 years, when he was a tall, 6 foot 4-inch dark haired philosopher who taught sociology to the last time I met him a few years ago when he was a white-haired patriarch with the beginnings of Parkinson’s. In between he guest lectured for me at Wharton, Northwestern, Harvard, Loyola and the U of I as well as having made some Quaker Oats public policy forum appearances. Now here are some reflections:

He was born in a town I know well, Watkins, Minnesota, a small town in the heart of the most Germanic county of the U.S. in central Minnesota, to a German mother and an Irish father (who farmed). Gene went to neighboring St. John’s University and scored the highest all-time academic record—all As. He went into the Benedictine order after graduation and stayed nine months but the time spent there formed him. When he went in he was familiar with the great philosophers of the church: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, Gerald Vann, Kqarl Adam, Romano Guardini, Christopher Dawson, Mauriac and Maritain. When he left, he got a graduate degree at the U of M in sociology, meeting and marrying Abigail Quigley. Abigail was at least as bright as Gene but was from the Wabasha, Minnesota Quigleys., Irish Democrats to the core. The Quigleys were not unlike the Daleys. Needless to say that was not Gene’s style.

He was undergoing a St. John’s idealism and for a time the two of them rented a farm where he worked (he was a good farmer) and read, discussing theology with her. She quickly said the hell with that, she wanted something more—and ultimately so did he. First he taught at St. John’s where I got to know him, then they moved to St. Paul where both of them became college professors, held up as models by the liturgical reformers as the kind of married couple cognizant with the church’s social doctrines whom we should imitate. They were living in St. Paul when Gene’s professor buddies introduced him to Hubert Humphrey who was building a strong Democratic-Farmer-Labor party out of a general chaos: there were Democrats, old Farmer-Laborites and independents. Humphrey gave it some discipline and recruited Gene to run for Congress in St. Paul in what was regarded as a kind of lost cause. Lost cause because the incumbent, Ed Devitt, was a congressman rather like the man Gene was perceived of as being: a graduate of St. John’s. In fact the Abbot of St. John’s, Alcuin Deutsch, OSB, once told me he was mad at Gene for running against a Johnny. Why isn’t there another district he can find, he asked. Ed Devitt was conscious of the social teachings of the church and just happened to be a Republican.

Gene’s first campaign set the standard. If you were more observant than I was at the time, you noticed a veneer of intellectuality and snobbery with soft-stated, barbed ridicule. Later he would say of George Romney who accused the LBJ people of brain washing him on Vietnam, “in Romney’s case only a light rinse would do.” Funny, isn’t it? But Gene never spoke self-deprecatingly of himself as Adlai Stevenson and JFK would do: it was always cutting down the other guy. He cut down Ed Devitt and served for 12 years in Congress. He got the reputation of being a coaster, not a hard worker, of being very pro-business in his work on Ways and Means and a sophisticate who would take a copy of Yeats’ poetry to committee sessions because he was bored. Yet his mind was such that he absorbed the tax stuff almost as if by osmosis while he committed Yeats to total memory. (I’ve sat by his side when he recited Yeats for at least two hours to a rapt audience). I have no doubt that he was more than an intellectual who could ponder Aquinas, Henry George, Freud and Marx offhandedly. He was far deeper than Humphrey who had to work hard to master issues. McCarthy was the nearest person I’ve ever met to being a genius.

As Longfellow once wrote, “you know the rest in the books you have read.” You know—or I think you know—that McCarthy became organized labor’s favorite Congressman. He moved to the
Senate in 1958, knocking off a liberal Republican whose tenure was ripe. In the Senate he became not just close to LBJ, the majority leader, but his confidante. He distanced himself from JFK because he was envious: he said he was twice as smart and twice as Catholic as JFK and was probably right. Then JFK was elected president with LBJ, then the assassination and LBJ became president. McCarthy fancied that he would run with LBJ in 1964 to be the Catholic heir to the presidency. Abigail fancied this, too. She was a true political wife.

But LBJ had other ideas and listed quite a few possible candidates for vice president including Humphrey, McCarthy, Tom Dodd and a number of others. Then it boiled down to Humphrey and McCarthy. McCarthy decided that he was being toyed with as a foil with Humphrey to get the laurels so he bowed out and kept a sublimated hate for LBJ in his heart. The hate boiled over concerning Vietnam—but I don’t think it would have been there had not McCarthy felt betrayed by LBJ.

People don’t recognize that not only didn’t McCarthy win in New Hampshire, he lost to LBJ on a write-in since LBJ hadn’t announced yet. But the media picked up his loss as a moral victory because just like now, they despised the war. During that time I was rather close to McCarthy since we had gone to the same school (me twelve years after he) and knew the same people. It was there that I would marvel at his quotesmanship. Not that the quotes weren’t accurate but I wondered what they meant. They meant that for all his gifts, Gene McCarthy had turned away from philosophical certitude and was running to get-even, not necessarily to get elected president or to lead the nation to a program of his own.

There was one favorite quote he used when he spoke to the kids which stunned me. He would quote Plutarch: “They are wrong who think politics is like an ocean voyage or military campaign—something to be done with some particular end in view.” Repeat that to yourself as I did. What does it mean? It meant that McCarthy was telling us he was uncertain, a nihilist. The more I questioned him through the years the more I became convinced that for all his learning, he was a skeptic, that he was not far from believing like the Buddhists who hold the existence is not real but mere illusion with truth held as relative; maybe like Nietzsche that truth is a mere expedient of language, truth is nothing more than a cultural necessity.

That view turned his wife against him, because Abigail thought, particularly when Bobby Kennedy was killed, that her husband could become president. But then Gene evaporated, went to St. John’s and took a long retreat while she chafed and others wondered what was going on. Consider that Plutarch quote: “They are wrong who think politics is like an ocean voyage or military campaign—something to be done with some particular end in view.” Do you know any other politician who would quote this: LBJ, JFK, Nixon, Reagan, Humphrey. They knew what they wanted to accomplish, or at least were confident they did. Not Gene. Much deeper than they, he was overcome with skepticism and as an intellectual he was far happier in the company of his buddy Robert Lowell, the poet, than politicians.

But McCarthy had certitude about short-range things: getting even. He got even with LBJ by destroying his presidency. And he got even with Humphrey whom he never forgave for getting the vice presidency McCarthy wanted—got even by holding off his endorsement until the very last hours of the presidential campaign against Nixon where the endorsement would mean very little.

Abigail bailed out, wrote her book “Private Faces, Public Places” which is an outstanding read, by the way. Gene knew he was finished in the Senate in 1970 with Democrats enraged at his failure to endorse Humphrey in time. They never divorced but Abigail had a final sentence in her book that tells a lot: It says Gene had discovered that he could not be true to anything including marriage. That really isn’t a charge of infidelity; it’s a charge against nihilism and relativism. McCarthy went on from there to run for the presidency a number of times, tried to broker the election of Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter which if Dick Ogilvie had been the sagacious Ford chairman he was reputed to be just possibly could have happened. McCarthy endorsed Ronald Reagan, endorsed the Star Wars concept.

The disease of the West is relativism. Skepticism of absolute truth vitiates one in any endeavor, especially politics. One cannot perform in business without believing strongly in your product and your corporation; one certainly cannot perform in politics without believing strongly in your candidacy. And one cannot be a religionist without believing in absolute truth and certainty. When you begin to believe that one religion cannot be the bearer of truth, you believe all religions are equal, that all views have some shading or gradation and that truth is unknowable. Gene McCarthy the intellectual was not alone. Thomas Merton who left a world of academia for a Trappist monastery came to the conclusion that he wanted “to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” That’s why when I say Gene McCarthy was the most intellectual man I had met—and that he was a good Buddhist—I’m greeted by lots of head scratching. But it’s true.


  1. TOM: I met Gene McCarthy only once, arranging him to meet a German journalist at the request of a USIA official when I was a Congressional Liaison for the agency. I was a phone-friend of one of his aides via the Senator's longstanding friendship with a former St. John's English teacher named Tom Cassidy. When we met, McCarthy never smiled; he just looked right through me, never said a word to me but sat down with the journalist. Yet he and Tom Cassidy were very close politically before he ever ran for office. Abigail even commented on this in her book. Did you ever know Tom? He left St. John's for WW2 service, was honored as a military intelligence officer in the Battle of the Bulge, returned to Notre Dame to teach several years (we overlapped in ny senior year), and ended up as a 20-year Mr. Chips at Southern Illinois University. After retirement he went back to St. John's to teach but was felled by emphysema and was taken from us in 1985.

    P.S. We never met, but I admired your Quaker Oats contributions from afar, as Director of Community and Cultural Affairs at American Airlines (with Paul Gibson, Jr., our first black VP who went on to become the first NYC black Deputy Mayor). It's possible we may also have a mutual friend/acquaintance in business prof John R. Jozwiak at Loyola/Lewis Towers and an aide to Fr. Baumhart. (Ironically, I became aide to U.S. Rep. Dave Baumhart of Ohio.) Chicago is my #2 favorite city. Next time I plan a visit I'll check with you about our getting together.

  2. We can sure produce an odd, melancoly brand of politician out here in the plains sometimes.