Wednesday, December 14, 2005

One More McCarthy Tidbit: The Hair in LBJ’s Nostrils

When things got rough with the Eugene McCarthy marriage and friends of Gene and Abigail Quigley got together with Abigail and asked what was happening, she told them what I have mentioned in my earlier blog: that Gene was not serious about running for the presidency…that while others worked their hearts out he was drinking with Robert Lowell (my feeling is that he didn’t want to be president because he was beset with indecision). His frivolity came to head in 1964 when he was one of three prospective candidates for the vice presidential nomination. LBJ invited Gene and Abigail to dinner at the White House and, of course, she primped herself up to be perceived by LBJ and Lady Bird as a prospective First Lady. And she gave Gene hell about his sense of humor and whimsy.

They had a delightful dinner and afterward the President poured a drink for Gene in the corner of the room and they engaged in an animated hushed conversation while Abigail could hardly keep her eyes off them. Johnson did what he always did to people: give them what was known as the “Johnson Treatment” where he stood very,very close to the instructee and spoke in hushed tones. With McCarthy it was rather difficult because McCarthy was 6 foot 4 and Johnson slightly shorter, but Abigail saw that Johnson was standing on his tip-toes so as to have an edge on Gene, leaning over to him in grand senatorial style and whispering. All the time, Gene said nothing to him.

When they got in their car, Abigail could hardly contain herself. Tell me what he said, she enthused, and what you responded. I want the by-play.

McCarthy said: “Well, to tell you the truth I didn’t pay very close attention because I was amazed at the hair in his nostrils.”

That may well have done it. Later McCarthy told the same story to me and a friend who had breakfast with him. Abigail, to whom politics was very serious, could not get over the diffidence of her husband. But the answer is clear: Gene didn’t believe in very much, had no reservoir of certainty and used the hairy nostrils to avoid comment and to drive her nuts. Which he very nearly did.

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