Monday, May 5, 2008

Flashback: McCarthy’s Prestige Dwindles To Where He is Admired by a Precious Few. His Views Take Peculiar Twists and Turns. Deaths of Daughter, Wife and Companion Marya McLaughlin. Finally McCarthy Himself at Age 89.


[More than 50 years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Eugene McCarthy watched with satisfaction the reelection of Ronald Reagan over his erstwhile colleague Walter Mondale in 1984 although he said Reagan didn’t know anything about issues but didn’t need to know them to be president, and lived in a kind of self-imposed exile at his home in Woodville, Virginia with occasional forays in politics all of which brought defeat. He lived in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in Woodville, in Rappahannock county, at the feet of the Blue Ridge mountains, a 90-minute drive from Washington. He lived on a $40,000 a year Senate pension, such lecture fees as I and others could arrange, an annual fee as a director of Harcourt-Brace and book sales.

His political wanderings had confused many. He ran as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 but fared poorly in New Hampshire and Wisconsin and dropped out. He ran as an independent candidate for president in 1976 when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were opposing each other; he tried to encourage sufficient funds to dislodge certain Democratic states that were seen as very narrowly going for Carter—but the money to run TV ads was not sufficiently forthcoming (although I helped him in this). In 1980 he came out for Ronald Reagan and hoped to be named ambassador to the UN but was disappointed; whereupon he turned on Reagan. He sat out the 1984 campaign but in 1988 at age 72 his name appeared on various ballots as the presidential candidate of a handful of left-wing satate parties such as the Consumer Party in Pennsylvania and the Minnesota Progressive party. In this campaign he did a U turn on libertarianism and supported trade protectionism, Reagan’s Star Wars and abolition of the two-party system. In 1992 he attempted to return to the Democratic party and entered the New Hampshire primary at 76 but was excluded from the candidate debates. In 2000 at age 84 he supported Ralph Nader for president.

Every few years he would publish a new book of essays or political commentary. Whenever editors suggested revisions, his habit was to look for a new editor. “As his own friends admitted,” wrote biographer Dominic Sandbrook, he was “too lazy and self-assured to work hard at a book.” Because Sandbrook was critical, McCarthy stormed that he was seriously thinking of suing Sandbrook for libel—but didn’t.

His works started well. The first three were brimming with scholarship and acerbic writing-- “Frontiers in American Democracy” 1960, “Dictionary of American Politics,” (1962) and “A Liberal Answer to the Conservative Challenge,” (1964) as an answer to Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative.” These books showed the effect of solid research. But the remainder do not—since McCarthy had come to the conclusion that his experiences in politics were themselves all the research needed. This is true with “The Limits of Power: America’s Role in the World,” (1967), “The Year of the People” (1969), about his 1968 campaign, “The View from Rapahannock” (1984) “Up `til Now” (1987), “A Colony of the World” (1992). “No Fault Politics” (1998).

A very clever book is the one he wrote with the conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick, a drinking buddy and soul-mate, “A Political Bestiary” (1979), illustrated by Jeff McNally and is my favorite. Others which were, to my mind, well-written and highly worth the reading were “War and Democracy” (1968) and “Hard Years: Antidotes to Authoritarians”(2001). Not so the final one, “Parting Shots from My Brittle Brow: Reflections on American Politics and Life” (2004).

Deaths of Loved Ones.

The McCarthys had four children—a son, Michael Benet McCarthy, a daughter Ellen McCarthy, a daughter Margaret Alice McCarthy and a daughter Mary Abigail McCarthy. Of all the children, Mary Abigail was most politically involved. She graduated from Radcliffe College of Harvard University and New York University law school. She was a public defender in Washington, D. C. She struggled with cancer for many years and died July 28, 1990.

Gene’s close companion, Marya McLaughlin, 68, died in her home in Falls Church, Va. on September 14, 1998 of respiratory failure following an attack of meningitis. She was the first woman to appear in a regular journalistic position on network television news. Her paid death noticed listed McCarthy as her “close friend.”

Abigail McCarthy from whom he was never divorced, was 85 when she died on February 1, 2001 of breast cancer at her Connecticut avenue apartment in Washington, D. C. It was said that after a heated quarrel with her during the 1968 campaign he left after dinner and never returned. He took up with Marya McLaughlin the CBS-TV correspondent, dividing his time between his Woodville, Virginia farmhouse and her Washington, D. C. apartment. However toward the end of her life she renewed acquaintance with Gene; he turned his Senate pension over to her. She commented in 1987, “I’ve come to think of Gene as a relative.”

His Writings.

In most of the latter books he approached Ron Paul in his libertarianism with deviation for protectionism in manufacturing. But he did Paul one better. On abortion, while he was opposed to it, he felt the issue should be between a woman and her doctor and the government should not intrude. Paul is a little more definitely opposed than that. Throughout his life, McCarthy was making a journey. Starting as a very devout Catholic and rural lifer, he gradually watered down his faith until it was one of his own making. On all his obits the writers say he was a “devout Catholic.” Not in his final two decades or so. He was a free-thinking Catholic with enough cynicism and sardonic wit in him to doubt many of the immutable truths of the Church. This was either a legacy from Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB or an intellectual concoction McCarthy himself brewed. It is a mistake, I think, to blame Godfrey for McCarthy since both were equals i.e. not a priest shaping a layman.

Not long ago the author of “Almost to the Presidency,” the book I used as a kind of time-line for McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey to write my own observations and experiences with them, Al Eisele was in town for a speech to the St. John’s alumni. Al is a resident scholar with the Eugene J. McCarthy Institute at St. John’s. Al’s topic was the election of 2008 but I asked him who, in his estimation, was the greater man (neither was great in my estimation but that’s the term I used anyhow). Not to my surprise, Al picked McCarthy because he challenged the Vietnam war. My own choice would be Humphrey for without him taking a principled stand at the Chicago convention of 1948 the Democratic party would not have changed from the segregationist model it was.

True, all kinds of racial pandering and liberal excesses followed that change but the need for an initial change in 1948 was indisputable. Neither Humphrey nor McCarthy were great in an absolute sense. Hubert was a manipulative politician but his sense of conscience on civil rights came to the fore in 1948 and the Democratic party should thank him for his courage. Of McCarthy’s opposition to the Vietnam war, I think you know my position. It was a matter of convenience. His challenge of the war was at bottom unpatriotic. In announcing his candidacy in 1967 he said: “I am concerned that the Administration seems to have set no limit to the price it is willing to pay for military victory.”

Consider that statement for a moment. Suppose you heard it enunciated during the Korean War or World War II. It is the mother spawn of all anti-war defeatist statements that continues to the present day in Iraq. Before Gene McCarthy no so-called national figure ever dared to criticize the prospect of victory in war. This is, in the last analysis, probably what McCarthy’s true legacy was: spawning defeatist and skeptical attacks on the nation’s foreign policy and military ventures, adding even the wished-for prospect of military defeat.

In New Hampshire (which McCarthy didn’t win but came close) the psychology of his campaign was helped immeasurably by a spurious event—the supposed defeat of America with the Tet offensive. Faulty reporting on Tet misled the American people in many ways, including giving McCarthy support based on error that he should not have had. His near-victory there was spurious. It’s my contention that he saw the war which he once supported so warmly as to assure Johnson he would be loyal to it as vice president, as the opportunity to get even with a whole host of people…LBJ, Hubert, the rank and file of his party…for acquiescing in Johnson’s not choosing him for vice president. That is the view I have of his anti-war drive and one which I shall keep until I am persuaded by evidence to change.

McCarthy Dies: 2005.

Hobbled by complications of Parkinson’s disease, Eugene McCarthy died at age 89 on December 10, 2005 at Georgetown Retirement Residence in Washington, D. C. His eulogy was delivered by former President Bill Clinton despite the fact that McCarthy had called for his resignation when he was afflicted by scandal. Following McCarthy’s death, the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University dedicated their public policy center as the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy. Accordingly all kinds of great claims have been made for McCarthy’s views. But they are so discordant and contradictory one can scarcely ascertain what philosophy he had, if indeed he had any. He was a relativist and skeptic imbued with a bitter get-even sense that was waged against all his former allies.

The last time I saw him was in Minnesota at the 94th birthday of my former boss, former Governor Elmer L. Andersen. McCarthy, who was 89 and who was to die very shortly, was sitting in an anteroom of the hall where the banquet was held. He had then all the earmarks of Parkinson’s…the rigidity of a statue, the frozen expression of the face, with eyes that moved relentlessly in their sockets without movement of head, eyes moving to and fro. Our eyes made contact; I knew without doubt that this would be the last time we would see each other but out or respect for the energetic, witty and jesting man he had been, I decided to forego a conversation. I walked by; his head remained fixed as is the nature of the disease but his eyes followed me. So compelling were they that I turned and we stared for a long time at each other. His eyes were twinkling mischievously. I saluted him. He moved a few fingers to acknowledge but that was all. I moved on.


  1. Perhaps if The Bard had been there, he would have written:

    "Good Night, Sweet Wretch-"

  2. Rachel VashenpowerMay 5, 2008 at 9:34 PM

    Oh what political memories of a foolish era and foolish people. Click on the URL for more cogent discussion, please.