Thursday, April 3, 2008

Flashback: McCarthy, Descending to Nihilism, Is Let Go by New School Where He Was Teaching and Not Extended by Simon & Schuster Publishers. Hubert Battles Cancer Again and Seemingly Wins. 1976 Looms as a Democratic Presidential Year.

[Fifty years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

McCarthy, the Intellectual Drifter.

While Hubert Humphrey was building his nest-egg (although he didn’t know how big since he adhered to rules of the blind trust), Gene McCarthy was drifting into nihilism. When in the Senate he grew tired of bickering with his fellows, he longed to return to teaching and writing. Now he had a contract with the New School in New York as well as one as an editor with Simon & Schuster, 28 floors above Rockefeller Center. In addition he was available for guest lectures. I hired him often for corporate and university appearances in Chicago. But he was dissatisfied. I have always wondered what was with this guy. I have concluded that he suffered from depression. After his election to the Senate, he seemingly wanted early success but deliberately produced failure.

Examples: (1) After joining the Senate, he became lethargic in its work and often spent the afternoons across the street at the Carroll Arms hotel, drinking little but entertaining The Little Sisters of the Media, missing a good many roll-calls. (2) He ridiculed his colleagues with such devastating wit that his words were bound to make it to the senators’ ears. (3) He was unforgiving and bitter whenever a colleague would cross him which negated legislative accomplishments: with McCarthy there was to be no forgiveness for even the most trivial offense. (3) He exhibited no sense of gratitude or obligation to those senators who had helped him, starting with Hubert Humphrey and ending up with the majority leader, Lyndon Johnson—but caustic paybacks to those he offended him. . (4) He seemed constitutionally unable to clear sentences without ambiguity which mystified many, giving the attitude of a bemused, abstruse scholar. (5) When considered by Lyndon Johnson along with Hubert as a possible running-mate, he promised that he would support the Vietnam war but when he lost the nomination to Hubert (who was his senior by many years) he turned against Hubert, LBJ and the war.

(6) He meandered into running for president but stumbled into it at the right time, capitalizing on public dissatisfaction with the war and Johnson in New Hampshire. (7) He was quite properly outraged when Bobby Kennedy entered the fray after Gene had tested the waters and found the public receptive—but then Gene didn’t step on the gas and increase his energy to beat Bobby which drove Abigail nuts.. He showed up at one crucial debate unprepared because he had spent the afternoon drinking with poet Robert Lowell with the result that Bobby got away with murder in the debate. (8) He dawdled away the remainder of the campaign and (9) intended until the very last not to go to Bobby’s funeral after his murder when he was dragooned there by Abigail and his staff.

. Then (10) when the race was between Hubert and him, true to form he performed lazily, blasted Hubert and Ed Muskie whom he called “the latest Polish joke,” lost the nomination to Hubert, after which he brooded and refused to endorse Humphrey—sulking and harming Humphrey’s campaign until the very last hours of the presidential campaign against Richard Nixon when he made sure his endorsement would mean very little.

All the while he quarreled with his wife, Abigail, who showed far more political acumen than he—and went to live with Marya McLaughlin, a hazy CBS-TV journalist with a flare for poetry which stunned his friends (including me) who thought he was at the very least a devout Catholic…losing them, angering members of his own party for not being a good sport and endorsing Humphrey, losing his liberal anti-war followers by laying down on the job as a campaigner. All these things and the constant references to poetry with Lowell. What to make of it all? I have drawn the conclusion that this was severe depression which he couldn’t properly identify. Even beyond this, he seemingly wanted to win but insured that he would lose. But his problem wasn’t drink. He drank abstemiously except for that one time with Lowell before the TV broadcast.

He wrote several books which didn’t sell well—one with James J. Kilpatrick, the conservative, “A Political Bestiary” with cartoons by Jeff McNeely. Frittering away, he ignored his work as editor at Simon & Schuster. Manuscripts piled up on his desk. He wouldn’t read them but would send them to his boss without comment so his prowess as an editor was untapped. When the contract expired, they let him go. His lectures at the New School were apathetic and uninspiring, deviating into rambling. The same thing happened. When his teaching contract expired, they let him go. When I hired him as lecturer for $1,000 a pop plus travel and lodging (not a bad honorarium for those early 1970s days) at Wharton, Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola-Chicago and Harvard, he was very good: witty, incisive and made a big hit. But these were one-time performances. Afterward he would shrug them off. Seemingly nothing that was repetitive interested him. He grew bored early.

Once when we met for lunch in Washington, he told me he longed to get back to the Senate. But, of course, Minnesota’s seats were filled with Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. He spoke occasionally of running from New York (where he had an apartment as well as one in Washington, D. C. I asked him why and he answered cryptically: “It’s a good address, the Senate Office Building.” Meaning he didn’t have anything particular to accomplish: just to camp there, have a staff and ruminate.

But New York liberals remembered how he frittered away his opportunities and were not interested. Then he decided to go back to Minnesota and run for the House again in the 6th congressional district where he was born. It was 1974 and Watergate had caused the resignation of Richard Nixon. The 6th district’s Republican congressman, John Zwach, a farmer, had announced his retirement. The seat was open. But Minnesotans wondered: could the man who unhorsed Lyndon Johnson and became for a time the toast of the Georgetown cocktail circuit and who only occasionally showed up for Senate roll-calls find happiness campaigning in St. Cloud, Pierz, Motley and Milaca, Minnesota? As Minneapolis “Star” columnist Jim Klobuchar (who was father of a Yale lawyer who became Hennepin county prosecutor and first elected female U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar) wrote: “Is there a boom in Stearns county for poet-philosophers?”

The hitch was that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party already had a good candidate to run for the House, Richard Nolan and party leaders begged McCarthy not to muddy the waters. But no, he explored entering the race and was greeted with little applause, managing to miss an important fund-raiser scheduled for him in Mille Lacs county. Thereafter he decided not to run and said, unsurprisingly, that he had never been very keen about running for the House in the first place: “Good God, you know, I’m not very enthusiastic about it.”

Even so, he seemed wistful when he talked to me about a future in politics. As 1976 dawned he said, surprisingly, “You know, I think Hubert and I are the only team which could pull this party together in 1976.” HUH? When Hubert heard that he had made this remark, he said McCarthy had moved beyond being flaky to being “whack-a-doodle.” But McCarthy wanted to run in 1976 for one reason alone: he thought it would provide further celebrity for him: he despised the idea of being forgotten.

Hubert’s 1976 Campaign Plans.

All the while Hubert Humphrey was trying to ignore as best he could some inner rumblings that led him to think his health was failing. What they were included some blood in his urine which told him the old cancerous cells surrounding the bladder may not be cancer free. But he drove this from his mind.

In 1973, a year after his defeat, he was still a senator and a former vice president of the United States. Watergate was beginning to decimate the Republican party. Surely `76 would be a Democratic year. He would be at age 65 positioned right. McGovern had gone down the chute in `72 to the worst defeat in modern electoral history and the radical left that followed him was chastened. . Ted Kennedy didn’t seem interested. He, Hubert, was now positioned in the center of his party—not too conservative, not too liberal. Lyndon Johnson was dead; Richard Nixon becoming disgraced. Hubert once again joined the Senate Foreign Relations committee. There was trouble when the Senate subpoenaed his 1968 and 1972 campaign records but there didn’t seem to be any lasting damage.

Then in fall of 1973 he went to Bethesda for a biannual checkup. Bad news. Tissue samples suggested the return of cancer to his bladder. In 1967 there had been polyps, several of which were cancerous and they were removed. A panel of 10 doctors had thought this would be sufficient. Now the cancer was back. His doctor took the samples to another 10 leading urologists. Only one recommended radical surgery, the others therapy. Not saying a word to he would go to a Washington municipal hospital near the Capitol for X-ray therapy. Discouragingly his system revolted against the X-ray. Once he stumbled out of the hospital with attendants holding him up and told his driver (a limousine was a holdover from his vice presidential days) “take me home as soon as you can.” After an hour or two the pain would subside and he’d return to the Senate, looking fit.

But in December, 1973 he developed a serious reaction to the X-ray treatment and became anemic. He had to have 5 blood transfusions at Bethesda. Sixteen days later he was released and, vigorous as ever, went on TV on economic issues. In April, 1974 his doctor said the troublesome tumor had disappeared. Now Hubert described his ordeal to reporters and said, “I feel better than I have for years.” He went to China for an economic study. In the fall of 1974 he attended the World Food conference in Rome, ran through a schedule that had him rising at 6 a.m. and going to sessions until 2 a.m. the next morning. He was joined by his son Skip (Hubert IV) and they flew to Vienna, looked in at the U. S.-Soviet missile talks, then took off for four days in Israel, requisite for someone preparing to run for president. He met with Golda Meir, toured the Sinai front. By the time he returned home, he was notified that he was up for chairman of the Joint Economic Council. With his health in seemingly good shape, he was readying himself for his last hurrah—this one presumably to be successful—=running for the presidency in 1976.

The contrast between him and Gene McCarthy was like night and day.

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