McCarthy in Winter


Eugene McCarthy has become a ghostly figure.

The hair is white, his motions slow and his once-distinguishing height angled over a cane.

But the penalties of being 82 wear on him much easier than a recent alternative--six months in a Washington hospital, including a lengthy stay in intensive care, as he recovered from a herniated disc and nasty complications.

The Associated Press reported gravely on McCarthy's illness last fall, but the dispatch did little to pull the former Minnesota senator and Democratic presidential candidate from the shadows he had entered long before. In conversations in the New York area and in Washington, even some of the best-informed members of the media are surprised to learn that McCarthy has been around all this time, let alone that he is still speaking out, writing and decrying perceived flaws in the political system, as he did when he was making history 30 yearsago.

Indeed, three decades after the wretched year that claimed the lives of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the former antiwar presidential candidate is the lone surviving giant in a cast that also included Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Daley and Spiro Agnew who can offer front-row witness to that tumultuous period. He does so in a new book of political essays, "No-Fault Politics," published by Times Books, in which he recalls 1968 and presents fresh evidence that he remains a wry and provocative thinker who defies easy definition as a liberal. Boston Globe columnist Martin F. Nolan calls the new book, peppered with passages from Chesterton, Shakespeare and other luminaries, "as sharp as a Minnesota winter."

"I'm coming along all right," McCarthy said after walking a couple of blocks in the furnace heat of Washington to a recent interview. "I had kind of a rough time when I was sick. But I'm almost free of this cane."

McCarthy--a onetime Benedictine novice, a published poet, a laconic man who seemed to writer Norman Mailer "more like the dean of the finest English department in the land"--proclaimed late in 1967 that the Vietnam War had created "a moral crisis in America." Braving the wrath of Johnson, who had considered McCarthy as his running mate in 1964, he decided to challenge the president in a few Democratic primaries in 1968.

Thousands of college students, many of them shedding beards and beads to be "clean for Gene," rallied to his cause in New Hampshire and helped him finish an unthinkable second to Johnson, with 42% of the Democratic primary vote. Although Kennedy had been preparing his own run all along, McCarthy's near-upset prompted the New York senator to declare his candidacy four days later. Two weeks after that, on March 31, a weary Johnson stunned the pols and the people by announcing he would neither seek nor accept his party's nomination for reelection.

Kennedy was assassinated in June, moments after claiming his win over McCarthy in the crucial California primary. And Humphrey, the vice president, finally ended McCarthy's issue-driven campaign by capturing the Democratic nomination at the Chicago convention that began 30 years ago last month as police battled civilians in the streets (and McCarthy tended to bloodied supporters in a makeshift medical ward at the Hilton Hotel). Two years later, McCarthy left the Senate and went on to become a footnote to presidential politics by waging quixotic campaigns for the White House in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992 as he also continued to write poetry and other books.

"I appreciate it more and more," McCarthy said of the memorable 1968 campaign, tilting his head back and slipping a hand into his jacket pocket, as he did so many times at the microphones. "You find people who say it was a great period of their life, the first time they were called upon to make that kind of social, moral decision. They were sort of able to rally around me. Up until that time, it was kind of undirected protest [against the Vietnam War]. It's unique too, if you make a great historic generalization, that you shouldn't expect or have to wait for young people to make the great political decision of the period. They didn't do it alone, but they were a strong force in deciding against the war."

Opening the Process to More Candidates

What McCarthy argues for in his book--indeed, what he has pursued as a fringe candidate and essayist in the last 30 years--is an opening up of the political process to all kinds of candidates, especially those outside the two major parties.

For example, as one who sorely needed the large donations that he received from several wealthy souls in 1968, McCarthy scorns the limits on campaign contributions imposed by federal law, such as the $1,000 ceiling on individual gifts to a presidential primary bid.

"The principal arguments made for the election reform and financing laws have been that money is the root of all political evil and that the U.S. political system has been, or is being, corrupted by money, principally in the form of large contributions to campaign expenditures," he writes. "Most modern reform arguments ignored the fact that the higher levels of political corruption come from the desire for power and pride in office. . . . If Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were corrupted, it was not by money or the influence large contributors might have had upon them."

Before McCarthy became ill last year, he argued before the Senate Rules Committee that limits on presidential campaign contributions violate constitutional rights to freedom of speech.

"We should have agreements with foreign countries that they can give as much to our campaigns as the CIA gives to theirs," he cracked.

In the recent interview, McCarthy said he believes that the political process should be wide open to third parties. Which is another reason he faults federal election law, saying it "practically legalized the two political parties and excluded third-party movements, especially when you couple it with the control that television now has over the exposure of candidates. . . . Television is controlled by the two parties. People who own television stations are afraid. They don't want to lose their licenses."

And there's another idea that only a figure as contrary as McCarthy would raise in this or any other scandal-obsessed summer. He calls for "an antireform reform"--an elevation, rather than an elimination, of the electoral college in choosing the president.

McCarthy sees a way toward a more representative democracy and a system more hospitable to presidential candidates with little money if, say, the country were divided into 2,000 districts, each with 100,000 people, who would choose one presidential elector to represent them. He believes that a candidate for the electoral college who has a few volunteers could connect inexpensively with all 100,000 voters in his district. In the end, if a majority of the 2,000 electors chosen were Democrats, obviously they would go on to elect a Democrat president. Or if neither party claimed a majority of the electors, third- or fourth-party electors would hold the balance of power, as they sometimes do in foreign countries.

A far-out idea? Hardly, McCarthy says. He likens it to the procedure followed at political conventions.

"What I propose is, I wouldn't say more radical, except in the right sense: It's closer to what the Founding Fathers intended," he said. "It would make for a more representative process. It would free candidates from the dependence on television coverage and the need to raise a whole lot of money."

Noting that he's run for president five times, he added: "I haven't shied away. I don't know what effect it's had. I felt that, even in '68, the issue was primary--not the candidacy. We tried to keep the campaign on the issue, instead of being distracted."

In the Aftermath of the Upheaval

His was a low-key anticharisma, a novelty then and now, as political discourse often means little more than spin and posturing on the Sunday-morning talk shows. At the same time, there are those who maintain that McCarthy's aloofness, his seeming disdain for political gamesmanship in 1968 and his exit from the highly visible stage of the Senate two years later doomed his chances of playing a more meaningful role in the national arena.

Across Washington, veteran political columnist Jules Witcover sat in the coolness of his Georgetown home and recalled that McCarthy "didn't want to feel like he belonged to anybody. He tried to remain removed from the more pedestrian aspects of politics." Still, Witcover suggested that McCarthy could have regrouped after 1968 and gone on to claim the Democratic nomination four years later, if he had wanted to. But as Witcover recalls in his comprehensive book about the upheavals of 1968, "The Year the Dream Died" (Warner), McCarthy did not just fold up his campaign after the Chicago convention. He went off to vacation on the French Riviera and then covered the World Series for Life magazine. Only a week before election day did he come around and endorse Humphrey, grudgingly, saying that his fellow Minnesotan "has shown a better understanding of our domestic needs and a stronger will to act than has been shown by Richard Nixon."

McCarthy dismisses the idea that he--not George McGovern--could have won the party's nomination in 1972.

"I never had any evidence of that," he said. "By the time we got done in '68, we had alienated the regular Democrats, the Johnson Democrats. We had alienated the Humphrey liberals and alienated the Kennedy people and the labor movement. So it's a long way to come back if you have those three or four elements in the Democratic Party set against you."

To be sure, McCarthy was not the only Democrat to sit out the Humphrey campaign. But given the narrowness of Nixon's victory, McCarthy's inaction put him high on a list of those blamed by some wounded Democrats for allowing Nixon to win the White House and usher in the Watergate abuses that followed.

McCarthy "always hated Humphrey and Walter Mondale," said former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who backed Humphrey in 1968 and recalled that McCarthy flabbergasted many Democrats in 1980 by endorsing Ronald Reagan over President Carter and Vice President Mondale. (McCarthy believed Carter had been "a disaster" as president.)

"In 1968, McCarthy did a very decisive thing," Simon added. "His candidacy really did push Lyndon Johnson out of the race. . . . But his otherwise solid positions on the issues really were compromised by his personal bitterness."

McCarthy also shared a bitter relationship with Robert Kennedy, whom he and many of McCarthy's supporters saw as an arrogant latecomer to the dump-Johnson movement.

"I never saw such hatred in politics--never," said New York attorney William J. vanden Heuvel, a Kennedy insider who shared his candidate's view that McCarthy was too eccentric a figure to go all the way and wrest the nomination from Johnson. "The ultimate expression of this hatred was seen at the Chicago convention."

Vanden Heuvel was in the hotel suite when McCarthy told Stephen Smith, the slain candidate's brother-in-law, that he was prepared to throw his support to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in what would have been a last-ditch bid to derail Humphrey's all-but-inevitable nomination. In the same conversation, though, McCarthy also made it coldly clear that he would not have done the same thing for Robert Kennedy.

As Witcover recalls in his book, "Time magazine subsequently reported that McCarthy's offer had brought tears to Smith's eyes, to which Smith icily commented: 'Somebody mistook it for all the spit in them.' "

An Assassination and a Turning Point

McCarthy was asked whether, with the benefit of hindsight, he might have done things differently in 1968.

"Well, I don't know," he said. But as he elaborated, it seemed clear that time had not softened his view of Kennedy.

"We had a pretty decent, restrained plan to start with. The next thing we knew, Bobby came in, and he changed the tenor of the campaign: brought in race, brought in migrant workers, brought in anticommunism and a whole lot of stuff." (Kennedy hinted that McCarthy's talk of a coalition government in Vietnam made him soft on communism, and Kennedy challenged McCarthy on where public housing should be built.)

"We tried to stick to our plan. Bobby forced us into some kind of extracurricular political activity. We probably would have been tougher on him, instead of trying to hold him back and keep the issue of the war as the dominant one. . . . We would have done it if he hadn't been killed."

These days, McCarthy divides his time among Washington, a country house in Virginia and as many speaking engagements on the road as his health will allow. He has been separated since 1970 from his wife, the writer Abigail McCarthy, a longtime columnist with the magazine Commonweal, but not divorced, apparently because of their Roman Catholic faith. She recalled in her memoir, "Private Faces, Public Faces," that the 1968 campaign "brought almost unbearable emotional strain and disaster to our family," but she and her husband have remained friends.

The McCarthys had four children, one of whom shares in the dedication of "No-Fault Politics." Mary McCarthy, who, her father says, played a central role in his 1968 campaign, taught at Yale Law School and died of cancer at age 41 in 1990. The other three--a son and two daughters--are professionals living in Washington and around the country.

"No-Fault Politics" is McCarthy's 21st book. He said he wants to write another "on the basic strength of the country and the Constitution."

On the whole, yes, he said, he is optimistic about the country and its future, notwithstanding his concerns about federal election laws.

"Despite this," he added, "the republic somehow rights itself with anything that comes along. . . . When the institutions of power are against them, there's some kind of natural strength there."

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