A little more than a year ago one of the Senate’s dissenters told The Nation that Eugene McCarthy had remarked to a small group of his colleagues, “We must do something to stop this madman” (referring, of course, to President Johnson). If Senator McCarthy did in fact make such a remark privately, he took pains to cover his feelings from the public. Even in off-the-record conferences with newsmen at that time, he sounded discouraged to the point of inaction. He told a reporter for The Nation in the spring of 1966: “The commitment [in Vietnam] is now so extensive, not even the mildest dissent is to the point.” In the same interview he said that he did not really look upon the Senate dissenters’ advocacy of the Kennan-Gavin enclave theory as a true alternative to the President’s course of action, but merely as a way of saying “we would support him in a modification” of his war program.
Pessimism, hesitancy, cynicism, some constitutional conservatism and a lot of lone-wolfism have heretofore muted Senator McCarthy’s part in the Congressional dissent. He took not the slightest interest, for example, in the move to nullify the Tonkin Gulf resolution. He said that it had given the President no powers he did not have before, so why withdraw an empty gesture? He signed letters to the President urging de-escalation, but would not join with Senators Morse and Gruening in voting against the Pentagon appropriation bill nor would he line up with Morse and Nelson against the Vietnam supplemental appropriation Similarly, he refused to join the larger group of dissenters who supported Senator McGovern’s amendment last year–a retribution amendment–to cut the military aid bill by the same amount the Senate had cut the Development Loan Fund. Parting from men like Church, Clark, Gruening, the Kennedys, McGovern, Morse and Nelson, McCarthy voted with the majority and for the Administration.
In such matters, McCarthy is faithful to a philosophy, which is that the Senate should adopt a policy positively rather than cut appropriations in a negative attempt to force policy upon the government. And because of that position McCarthy was, at least until recently, rated by the Administration among the “responsible dissenters.” Up to last February he was still being invited to formal dinners at the White House.
The fact that he has now climbed over the trenches to challenge Johnson much more personally and dramatically than any other member of Congress not only has thrown the White House into a dither but, oddly enough, has knocked some of the press rather cockeyed-though none quite so cockeyed as William S, White, President Johnson’s intimate friend and favorite leaker, who became hysterical to the point of mixing metaphors about McCarthy’s proposed candidacy: “What meat, then, is feeding this improbable Caesar, Eugene McCarthy? Sincere belief, no doubt, but beyond that a fierce fire of ambition fanned by the hot, fanatic thirst that now grips the throats of the American peacenik movement.” Could Lincoln, writing in the Washington Star, likened McCarthy’s efforts to those of Wallace as a “spoiler” of LBJ’s chances (although by now everybody who knows anything about Wallace’s venture realizes he will undercut the Republicans, not the Democrats). And David Broder, of The Washington Post, denounced McCarthy as a turncoat on the ground that he had supported Johnson in 1964.
But in fact there is nothing surprising about McCarthy’s leap with the approach of a Presidential race, he-like Stassen-is always socked by a special load of adrenalin. It shows up in numerous ways, including his propensity to write books. Thus we were given Frontiers in American Democracy in 1960 and A Liberal Answer to a Conservative Challenge in 1964; this time he jumped the gun with The Limits of Power, published in October.