Saturday, December 10, 2005

My Evening with Eugene McCarthy

Senator Eugene McCarthy died today at age 89. He will be remembered most famously for challenging President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, which influenced public support for the war and Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968. McCarthy ran for president as a Democrat in 1968, losing at the violence-marred Chicago convention to fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey. He also ran in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992 as a Democrat, political independent, member of the Consumer party, and Democrat again.

It was during his obscure presidential campaign in 1976 that I met Senator McCarthy. I was a shy, na├»ve college sophomore befriended by a generous patroness – a professor who had joined McCarthy’s “clean Gene” liberal legions in 1968 and remained in contact with her revered mentor even after her own politics became more conservative/libertarian. She hosted a dinner in his honor and invited an intriguing assortment of successful overachievers from her political, literary and financial circles – and me. I believe that I was the only guest who was 1) under the age of 20, 2) under the age of 40, and 3) unable to talk or eat for fear of vomiting from nerves.

Dominated by the opinionated former senator, the conversation was so intellectual and lively that no one noticed my awestruck silence – I hoped. I was busy making mental notes about authors and poets recommended by and to McCarthy as he seemed much more interested in literature than politics, his campaign notwithstanding. He was also wickedly funny, which I did not expect.

I have read over the years that McCarthy’s 1980 endorsement of Ronald Reagan owed more to his loathing of Jimmy Carter than to ideological principle. That evening in 1976 he talked most memorably of Reagan, Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Pat Moynihan, and William F. Buckley. McCarthy mentioned that he might drop out of the 1976 race and throw his support to Reagan if he won the GOP nomination away from Ford, whom he seemed to dismiss as a lightweight. I recall that he praised Reagan’s independence and conservative convictions.

McCarthy expressed blatant contempt for Carter. I don’t remember if the analogy was his, but he enthusiastically agreed that Carter was an overestimated simpleton reminiscent of Jerzy Kosinski’s character Chance the gardener from Being There. I remember this clearly because I read the novel – three years before the film version was released – at the earliest opportunity afterward.

Before I left, our hostess walked me over to Senator McCarthy for an introduction. She told him that I would be interviewing a renowned presidential historian whom they both knew – she helped me get the assignment for our college newspaper – and solicited his advice on my behalf. He suggested several questions, including some related specifically to the Kennedy brothers, J. Edgar Hoover and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I was grateful to use.

What happened next McCarthy may or may not have foreseen, but I was certainly unprepared. I was just as passive and awkward addressing the historian, so early in our interview I resorted to my secondhand list of questions. The historian – as it turns out, a Kennedy apologist – objected, fumed, and had me forcibly removed from the campus bookstore. Thus ended my ambitions to be a journalist. I can and do laugh now, but it was horribly traumatic at the time and I suffered ridiculous political retribution from the university staff.

This episode aside, the lingering impression from my precious few hours with Eugene McCarthy is that he was somewhat libertarian, quite the contrarian – which my professor friend confirmed – and more conservative on social policy and communism than his liberal roots would suggest. His proud, imposing demeanor was that of a great man with weighty thoughts – and he was.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Day the Music Died

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October 9, 1940 - December 8, 1980

Please don't wake me, no, don't shake me.
Leave me where I am, I'm only sleeping.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

T Is for Tookie – And for Terminator?

Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the founder of the violent Crips gang, is scheduled for execution next Tuesday, December 13 – T-minus six days and counting down. Tookie, Tookie, Tookie starts with T. But how does it end?

Williams’ fate has rested with Arnold Schwarzenegger since the California Supreme Court denied a motion to reopen his case one week ago on a 4-2 vote. The Governator is an avowed supporter of the death penalty, a state law declared constitutional by the SCOTUS which it is his duty to uphold barring special circumstances. T is also for Terri Schiavo, whose life was lost because governors hold the authority to save convicted murderers but not innocent wives.

As Schwarzenegger deliberated clemency for Kevin Cooper, Talk Left recorded this December 2003 prediction:

“At least one convicted murderer sentenced to death will have his sentence commuted to life without parole by Gov. Arnie during his term as Governor. We don't think it will be Cooper--but we do expect he will weigh each case individually and find one such prisoner who deserves mercy.”

Schwarzenegger decided not to grant clemency to Cooper, who remains on death row after winning a last minute stay of execution from the infamous 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Does Williams merit more gubernatorial leniency than Cooper? The clemency hearing is scheduled for tomorrow.

I am personally ambivalent about the death penalty but not about the facts supporting the guilty verdict against Williams. The only clear rationale for the Governor to grant clemency is politics, not the law, and I fail to see how that benefits him politically. Laying aside how ugly and crass it would be for any politician to exploit life and death for political gain, Arnold must understand that Williams’ supporters will never vote for him. Michelle Malkin posted a roundup of commentary by blacks who oppose clemency for Tookie, including actor-writer Joseph C. Phillips whom many of us fondly remember from his portrayals on The Cosby Show and General Hospital.

After appointing Susan Kennedy, former Cabinet Secretary for Gray Davis, as his new chief of staff, Republicans who voted for Schwarzenegger are not happy. John Fund has uncovered the thorny trail from Kennedy to Phil Angelides to Bob Mulholland, the dirty trickster who slimed Bruce Herschensohn in the final days of his 1992 campaign against Barbara Boxer. Angelides, now the State Treasurer, is one of the leading Democrats running against Schwarzenegger in next year’s election.

T is also for Tom McClintock, the State Senator who is the only visible conservative advising the Governator and the candidate in retrospect many of us now wish we had supported in the 2003 recall election. Carol Platt Liebau speculates that Arnold might run for re-election as an Independent, unburdening himself of partisan baggage, which Carol thinks might free him to govern more conservatively.