Known as a Representative and
a Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy was more a poet and philosopher, than politician.
What higher compliment can be made to a man who was elected to serve the people?
A society that does not remember or understand its past cannot and will never be able to confront the present let along
challenge the future. The embodiment of opposition to the Viet Nam debauch debacle, McCarthy was a true populist. In the tradition of Robert La Follette Progressives, “Clean Gene” had a popular appeal
among reformers. Entrenched mechanics like Hubert Humphrey were tools of the
establishment, but McCarthy was more the rebel – a Jesse Ventura – for the intellectual crowd.
What is often missed is that he
had much in common with daring conservative movements like that of Strom Thurmond ("Dixiecrat") in 1948, and George Wallace
(American Independent) in 1972. Authentic progressive principle meets genuine
reactionary standards on the hallow ground of limited central government. Look
at it as if States’ Rights visited with their ill-advised utopian cousins. Both
camps steeped with courage looking to achieve a decentralized expression of social identity without the interference of a
federal “Big Brother”. While McCarthy was certainly an Adlai Stevenson man and when asked about Bobby Kennedy replied: “Well, I don't have a very high
regard for him - as we say, a minimum high regard”, he was a man of conscience.
The fiasco that was Chicago in
1968 gave the country a true look at the raw under belly of power politics. The
Democratic convention was Mayor Daley’s gift to the War Party. Gene McCarthy speaks of Mr. Gestapo in a 1996 interview:
was no surprise to us, you know. Worse than the violence in the streets, the Daley stuff was what the party on the inside
did to the principles and actually the rules and precedents of party procedure: taking delegates they didn't have a right
to, and denying delegates that we had a right to, trying to kind of control the score so it would look good. In my mind, that
had a much more serious impact on the Party, on the Democratic Party and politics than the stuff that went on in the street,
which was... understandable. The inside stuff wasn't.”
The Viet Nam War brought
the country to the edge of collapse. The bankruptcy of Johnson’s “Great
Society” was not fully known yet, but there was little doubt that the adventure in Southeast Asia was a sick attempt
at hegemony. It was not long before Richard Nixon expanded intervention into
a civil war and failed even more miserably in the use of hyperpower persuasion.
Gene McCarthy stood as the moral alternative, but the nation was too blind to accept the proper limits upon an irrational
quest for empire.
John Nichols in the Madison Capital Times 2001 expresses the mindset of the romantics:
was a radical anomaly in American politics even then, a former college professor who began one of the most important speeches
of that 1968 campaign - an address to a great rally in the Dane County Coliseum - by quoting, from memory, Walt Whitman's
"Leaves of Grass."
bent tended to put off fellow senators, who sometimes dismissed him as too prone to rumination and independent thinking for
the game of politics. But it sat well with the ragtag band of political dreamers who dared believe they could defeat a sitting
president, end a foolish war and set right a nation.”
All the while the war waged on
McCarthy bucked the system. For those who lived through the nightmare and have
the scars of the real battle of opposing state tyranny, we view him as a true national hero and inspiration. We can forgive the misguided sentimentality of his support for the federal Civil Rights Act and for Medicare and Medicaid. After all, he continued to be outspoken and opposed the current Iraqi War.
Rehabilitated idealists become
realists when they internalize the validity of bona fide conservative values and principles.
While the poet utters the cry of the human spirit, the honest reactionary seeks to direct the anarchist into action
for tangible moral justice.
McCarthy deserves the same tribute of any veteran. The Thanks of a Grateful
Nation – are especially for those who dedicate their sacred honor to the traditional non- entanglement policy and
make war against senseless foreign folly. The lesson of his life and bravery
become a noble celebration of all that is good about America. The libretto of
our national opera does not need to be a tragedy. Read and hear the message of
a bard made politician: