In March, 1982 at age 66, handsome, white-haired Gene McCarthy held a news conference and announced that he was running for Hubert Humphreys old seat in the Senate. The seat was held by Dave Durenberger who beat Bob Short, Durenberger blossoming as a vibrant liberal Republican possible presidential prospect. McCarthy was facing the partys favorite, Mark Dayton who was not only a multi-millionaire legatee of the Dayton department store fortune but had married a Rockefeller, Alida the sister of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (from whom Dayton was divorced).
McCarthy explained that his long absence from public office was a strength. Having stood apart from it for twelve years. Ill be able to come back to the Senate and say `Look, Ive been looking at your from the outside and now I want to tell you how to operate. Not too astute a comment, I would say: implying the Senate had been languishing all this time waiting for Gene to return. Having endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980 over Jimmy Carter, he now turned on Reagan. He still lived in Woodville, Virginia but allowed that he was ready to move back to Minnesota whenever he would get around to it. He took that occasion to say that he was far better prepared to represent Minnesota than had he lived in the state and had read the political coverage of the St. Paul and Minneapolis newspaperswhich made a big hit.
McCarthy said he would propose to his colleagues to reexamine the role of the Senate and turn it into something like the powerful institution that operated in republican Rome. But journalists were all over him about how he could square his earlier endorsement of Reagan with Reagans economic agenda and his record in central America. McCarthy didnt do it but blasted the Democratic party whose nomination he was seeking as a party thats in utter disarray, thats lost its way both nationally and locally, particularly on national issues. The Rochester Post-Bulletin made fun of him writing editorially: Vote for McCarthy and hes get us out of Vietnam!
His campaign was chock full of mistakes. Reporters following him around noticed his wristwatch was set to Eastern Daylight Time even though he was in the third day of a swing through Minnesota which is in the Central Time Zone. McCarthy spent $90,000 compared to Daytons $3.1 million. McCarthy gave the attitude that Dayton and the routine of campaigning were beneath him. At one debate between them, he slouched and seemed nearly asleep while his opponent spoke. In June, 1982 he declined to show up. The DFL convention endorsed Dayton with 947 to 8 on the first ballot. McCarthy stayed in Woodville, Virginia with his dog and was quoted as blasting Dayton. But being McCarthy he continued to run even without endorsement.
Ive observed people like him who come to Congress, he said about Dayton. They have a great concern for the poor and destitute, sort of a Christmas basket approach. They want to help the poor. It makes them feel good. And also, they sort of like to increase the number of the poor but they always work it from the bottom up. Theyll say more food stamps and rent subsidies and fuel subsidies and rebates and a negative income tax. But they dont have any real understanding, I think, of how people live who are in between, who have to meet mortgages and pay tuition and thing of that kind. He continued to travel across the state agitating the DFL and entered a senior citizens shot-put event and won. On September 14, 1982 Dayton won the primary by 3 to 1. McCarthy found that Democrats held it against him that he had not endorsed Hubert Humphrey for president I 1968 until it was too late to do any good. They practically blame me for his death, he said. At the loss he denied he was out of politics but said that he was out of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party for good. Abigail McCarthy made a meaningful commentperhaps the most meaningful ever said about Gene McCarthy:
He wanted to cut off everything and that is what he did
He had to be against his party, against his home state, peopleand against his wife. It was a dividing point in his lifeand he had to divide from so much to do it
so many things that mattered.
He stayed at his home in Woodville and in 1983, on Labor Day, he suffered a mild heart attack, staying in the hospital for three weeks but said that his health was restored and it wouldnt deter him from future political contests. He took a rest from running in 1984 when Reagan ran against Mondale. When asked his own preference, he said he voted absentee but hoped his ballot was lost in the mail.
I kept in touch with him and used university stipends to finance him as a lecturerbecause he was a distinct link with history for the students. His off-the-cuff cameo-sized portraits of his contemporaries
John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and the leading figures of the news media
made the classes he guested with me noteworthy. I have no doubt that the portraits were prejudicial and unfair but the spell he cast over students and professors made him an outstanding lecturer in an impromptu way. His size-up of congressional procedure was indispensable for classes which I taught since much of the course dealt with procedures. Here you had a man who spanned service in the House, the Senate, running for president and who talked brilliantly about taxes (from his experience on Ways and Means and Finance), foreign policy, the presidency: all this for $1,000 which was his fee which usually took in a faculty dinner the night before, breakfast with other faculty members, lectures to two classes and a cocktail party before he left. Whats not to like?
But throughout, he was the old McCarthy. Once he came in for a lecture and was discomfited. When I asked why, he said that the day before he had been playing tennis with Elizabeth Drew (I wondered idly what happened to Marya McLaughlin but decided not to ask). Elizabeth Drew is one of the outstanding contemporary political analysts, is a Wellesley grad, now the political columnist for The New York Review of Books, but had written for The New Yorker, had an interview series on PBS many years ago, has done a series of books
very-very good, incidentally
including on the 1980 presidential campaign, a biography of Richard Nixon. Her work is far-sighted and sophisticated: shes a liberal but thoroughly non-idealistic about the political process. Anyhow, they were playing tennis and it turns out Drew was very competitive. She called footfalls on McCarthy. This outraged him and he was burning inside when he told it to me with an anger that belied its having happened a full day earlier. He was steaming because the day was foggy and he continually told me she could not possibly have seen from her place across the net whether or not his feet were offside. I decided that if there had been anything between Gene and Elizabeth Drew, it was ended because the last time I heard him talk of a woman with such bitterness, it was Eugenie Anderson who had the temerity to run against him for the senatorial endorsement in 1958.