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, naïve 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.