Saturday, December 10

On Eugene McCarthy ...

The news came through a few hours
ago that Gene had died at age 89.
Here was a seminal figure in my younger
life - I worked on his 1968 campaign in
Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Illinois and
New York - whom I got to meet three
times in my campaign years. The first
time was during a campaign stop of his
in Omaha, and several of us went to his
hotel to meet the guy we were all working
for. He read some poetry while we there,
and was a bit diffident but polite.

The second time was a speech he gave in
Portland,OR and I was one of those
fortunate enough to be on stage when he
gave his speech (mistaken by a reporter
for being his speechwriter, which was
flattering) and then to a reception
afterward where I got to meet the poet
Robert Lowell and talk with him. McCarthy
was totally inaccessible save to the media
that night, so I really didn't get to speak to
him (ironically four of us working in the
Portland headquarters did get to meet and
speak with his opponent Senator Robert
Kennedy in a Portland restaurant for some
twenty minutes just a day or so before the
Oregon primary - the only defeat handed
to a Kennedy between 1948 and 1980).

The last time I ever encountered Senator
McCarthy was on 24 April, 1971, at perhaps
one of the largest anti-war demonstrations in
DC from 1966 to 1973. He was lurking at the
back of the crowd, and I spotted him, ending
up asking him what he thought about all those
people and all the speakers and he replied
that he was pleased that folks had finally
gotten the message about the war and that so
many were standing up for what they believed.

I always thought he erred in running again for
President a couple of more times - he had
already made history by losing a primary (New
Hampshire in 1968, by some 4%) and still was a
primary cause IMO of LBJ's withdrawal from
the Presidential race that March. As some have
said, he wasn't a superlative poet, but he wasn't
a bad poet, and he was an interesting guy. I
recall in 1968 the pundits saying that Gene
didn't really want to be President, and I think
they were right. McCarthy was an American
Don Quixote, tilting at windmills and mostly
failing, although he did give RFK and LBJ a
run for their money, and demonstrated a
certain dignity at the mess that was Chicago
that August.

He will be remembered, one suspects, for his
graciousness, slow drawl and dry humor, and
the fact that he was one of the first to take on
the Democratic party establishment about the
war in Vietnam. He became a late cultural icon
of the 1960s, and largely forgotten after the
1970s. VMS

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