Sunday, April 20, 2008

Flashback: Humphrey, the Small Town Drugstore Liberal…Gene McCarthy Lives an Eccentric Lifetime--28 Years--After Hubert’s Death.

[A memoir of the past 50 years in politics, written for my kids and grandchildren].

The Small Town Drugstore Liberal.

All one has to do is to look at Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the rest of them: Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Pat Leahy, Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein, to see the turn liberalism took after Hubert Humphrey’s death.

Humphrey was the last of the old-fashioned types, the kind whom you could vote for if the Republicans hadn’t nominated anyone good—and vote for with gratitude, too. He was a patriot (no matter his lamentable weakness in cow-towing to the elitist, anti-war Left when he finally got the presidential nomination; he probably would not have followed through had he won the election). He was a sports fan who liked to dance and go to parties. He drank beer and after a harrowing battle with pneumonia as a kid never smoke again. His passion for neatness was a social phobia. He could roar with laughter at a off-color joke. He was always the small-town pharmacist, reared in small town traditions. He lost a lot of sleep one night in Windsor castle because he couldn’t turn the hot water spigot off in his bathroom and worried about the loss of all that hot water from the boiler.

He was always ready to make allowances for human failings (the best thing I liked about him). He was never aghast at dealing with small time minor crime syndicate figures as Minneapolis mayor. Freddie Gates who was not one of them but a pinball machine manufacturer who knew them well was not only his friend but held the Bible when Hubert was sworn in as vice president. Hubert was an outrageous opportunist—doing Joe McCarthy one better by introducing an amendment to outlaw the Communist Party which annoyed civil libertarians. He was at once for massive national defense expenditures and détente, was at ease with Zionists and Arab nationalists. He had a genius for compromise and a dormant conscience when it came to ideological contradictions. He was a Prairie Progressive who could eat with bankers but still wore off-the-rack suits and Thom McCan shoes. He was a terrific fighter but lacked one essential quality: ruthlessness, meaning that he was no killer.

His insatiable ambition for the presidency betrayed him when he eagerly sought…and accepted…the vice presidency with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was a bully and sucked the life-blood out of Hubert, making him a vassal which Hubert was only too glad to be. Had Hubert remained in the Senate when Johnson ran into trouble with the Vietnam war, Hubert would have had a good chance of beating Gene McCarthy and Bobby and would have got the nomination on his own terms. The election then might assuredly have been his. Had Hubert become president he probably would have done what Nixon tried to do and that is to wriggle out of Vietnam—unsuccessfully. He would have piled up the deficits as Nixon did but as he had a much better character than Nixon would have been a better president. Yes, he certainly would have gone to China because he would have hired Henry Kissinger as his national security aide.

McCarthy’s Life an Irreversible Decline.

If Gene McCarthy’s life is the story of movement from a Minnesota small town (Watkins, Minn.) to presidential prospect, it is far different from Hubert’s progression from small town (Huron, S. D.) to presidential prospect. Hubert lived his whole life as a prairie progressive. Gene was not faithfully consistent in anything he did—from his politics to ideology to marriage. He began his career running for the House in 1946 coincident with the postwar rise of Communism, and as a Catholic was seen to be resolutely opposed. His run for the Senate in 1958 squared with liberal discomfiture with the passivity of the Eisenhower administration on economics and foreign policy (believe it or not liberals of his time felt that a 5-star general in the White House was allowing the Soviets to get ahead of us in the Cold War with a “missile gap,” which was speedily disproved).

When Gene won reelection in 1964 it was because of a great yearn by the electorate for Medicare and other social programs. But by 1966 the liberal wave had begun to decrease and there were the beginnings of troubles with law and order in the country. Still McCarthy’s many articles indicated that he was out-of-step with the rising discontent in the country with liberalism (with this he was similar to Hubert who would never entertain trimming his sails to accommodate conservatism). McCarthy’s sole goal being for himself rather than a liberal ideology, he bargained for the vice presidency with LBJ and promised to be loyal to the crusade of the Vietnam War. I have always wondered what would have happened had LBJ chosen McCarthy instead of Hubert for vice president. It is my guess that probably McCarthy would have remained far more constant to LBJ and the war than Hubert did. Why? Because Bobby Kennedy, McCarthy’s great hate, had left as AG, had become senator from New York and would be trying to pay LBJ back for not picking him…Bobby…for vice president (not that LBJ had given it a moment’s thought). Gene would have been motivated strongly to stand for the war against Bobby because he hated Bobby so.

Actually, motivated by hatred for Bobby, Gene would have been first in line for the presidency when LBJ retired, would probably have gotten the nomination over Bobby and conceivably could have crusaded to win the war—hatred for the Kennedys being such a powerful incentive (as hatred always was for Gene). He might not have defeated Nixon in 1968 since the pendulum was swinging for change (just as the pendulum is swinging for change today from what the public believes is a too-long custody of the White House by Republicans).

Gene had some key advantages over Hubert. He was more cerebral and much handsomer but that’s all. He was less energetic, far more relativistic in line with Virgil Michel-Godfrey Diekmann individualism, watering down absolutes of any kind which gave him an irresoluteness which lost him many followers. His great faults were arrogance, meanness, a Captain Ahab’s yen for bitter retribution, a bitterness that motivated him to get even with his enemies and deep cynicism, faults the far more generous Hubert never had. His legislative record was much thinner than Hubert’s. He gave his name to no major bills as did Humphrey, Fulbright and never lived up to what some believed was his full potential.

Because St. John’s, my old university, never had another public official that gained a national reputation, they have marketed Gene McCarthy with a McCarthy chair et al. Indeed my good friend Al Eisele who wrote the book on Humphrey and McCarthy which I used as a text for dates—adding an enormous amount of personal detail which only I could know—is coming to Chicago to lecture and I will be there.

What did McCarthy do in those years between Hubert’s death, in 1978 and his own in 2005 at age 89? First, he kept his health which is a good thing. I used him often, paying him for university lectures and once for his testimony in behalf of Quaker Oats in the early 1980s which was trying offset a hostile takeover by Brascan of Canada, an arm of Seagram—by convincing him to support in public testimony before a House committee a protectionist measure that would set up a foreign investment review board which would block acquisitions in the same way Canada does ours, a bill that had no chance of passage but which succeeded in frightening off Brascan, a measure that gained its House hearing thanks to the intercession of Speaker Tip O’Neill.

He supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, hoping in return, as McCarthy told me, of the ambassadorship to the UN, the negotiations conducted through Mike Deaver. The idea of Gene McCarthy supporting Reagan for president stunned me. Here was a one-time liberal anti-communist of 1946, turned critic of Vietnam who had said it would not hurt if the U.S. lost the war, turning into a libertarian paleo type in foreign and military affairs, believing we were too obsessed with anti-communism, endorsing an ex-California governor who said the USSR was “an evil empire.” Gene’s endorsement of Reagan hardly made the news since Gene had long since cheapened the franchise of his endorsement. The UN ambassadorship never came. I am told he met with Reagan. Two years later Gene said, “I’m not sorry I endorsed Reagan. I thought the Carter thing had to be stopped…I was not happy about what Reagan was going to do. I never really endorsed his economics…I supported Reagan only as against Jimmy Carter. As soon as he was elected, I turned on him.” Right.

He endorsed Reagan, McCarthy said, because Carter boycotted the Olympics. “When he did that, I said this has got to stop pretty soon. I mean, that’s the kind of thing a third-rate country does.” But in 1981 he decided to run for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota as a DFLer to get his old seat back. He showed up at the Minnesota State Fair as champion of the nuclear freeze movement, signing autographs and said, “I’ve suggested to Democrats that if they’ll forgive me for being right, I’ll forgive them for being wrong.” A cartoon in the Minneapolis “Star” showed tourists walking down the midway looking at stalls labeled Hilda the Fat Lady, Zira the Snake Woman, Bongo the Ape Man and McCarthy for Senator.

And there’s more. We’re not done yet with Gene McCarthy.

1 comment:

  1. is it because of no miracles in done in their names?