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The Limits of Power | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Limits of Power

Sometime in the mid-1990s, after it had become quite clear that Bill Clinton's presidency would deliver rather less than had been hoped, and when it was becoming clear that Newt Gingrich's control of the House would deliver rather more than had been feared, I penned a review of a then-recently published collection of former Sen, Eugene McCarthy's poems. In it, I lamented the lack of poetry in the politics of the moment and suggested that America would be far better served by politicians with a literary bent than by the dim-witted technocrats and self-absorbed plotters to whom power had fallen.

A few weeks later, a modest package with a Virginia postmark arrived at my office. In it was a lovely note from McCarthy, along with a thin volume of his poetry, Other Things and the Aardvark, which had been published in a limited edition of 250 almost three decades earlier. The senator had given copies of the book to friends and supporters of his anti-war campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. In the book's preface, McCrathy noted that "ancient mapmakers used the term 'terra terribilia' to identify what was beyond their knowledge of the earth" and he then paid tribute "to poets who have gone beyond the 'known' and the 'certain' into the 'terra terribilia' in the search for truth."

What did not need to be noted, of course, was that McCarthy had journeyed, in 1968 and over the decades that followed, across the terra terribilia of American politics, earning the enmity even of his onetime supporters and the affection of some who had once dismissed him as a dangerous radical. As I would learn over the years of our acquaintance that began with the arrival of that package, McCarthy was in most senses a very conservative man. He studied religion and the classics, he saw the value of tradition, he embraced standards of duty and responsibility that are so rarely followed today that they do indeed seem radical.

But, at the most fundamental level, all that Eugene McCarthy tried to do during his political lifetime -- with an unfortunate lack of success -- was drag America back to the best of its values.

We spoke about that struggle when I was preparing my book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire, before its publication this year. The premise of the book was that those founders who wanted America to lead by example rather than force -- as "a city upon a hill," to quote John Winthrop -- had imparted a wisdom worthy of recollection in these times. This appealed to McCarthy. Indeed, we found a quotation from a 1967 essay of his that updated the principle rather nicely: "A nation has prestige according to its merits. America's contribution to world civilization must be more than a continous performance demonstration that we can police the planet."

In that essay, which appeared only a few months before he launched his primary challenge to President Lyndon Johnson, with the argument that the United States should cease its policing of souytheast Asia and other far destinations, McCarthy wrote, "Many of our problems today are the result of our unwillingness or inability in the past to anticipate what may be the shape of the world 20 years in the future.... There is never a totally painless way to pull back from either unwise, ill-advised, or outdated ideas or commitments. But throughout history, mighty nations have learned the limit of power. There are lessons to be learned from Athens, from Rome, from 16th-Century Spain."

McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign is often remembered as a simplistic initiative, an attempt to turn the anti-draft and anti-war enthusiasms of protesting students into a political force. In fact, it was something far deeper, and far more significant.

In that 1968 run, and to an even greater extent in his 1976 independent campaign for the presidency, McCarthy argued for an American role in the world that owed much more to George Washington, James Madison and John Quincy Adams than it did to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or more recent presidents.

Living in the Virginia countryside, not far from the homes of the founders he favored, McCarthy remained steady across the years in his embrace of a Madisonian vision. He raged as only an American prophet could, about how George Bush, Dick Cheney and their neoconservative allies had, with their advocacy for an unprovoked attack on Iraq, "introduced new concepts about preventing war that are wholly unacceptable in our tradition."

"There are things you do in a war which are preventive, but to just announce it as a general proposition that you're justified in starting a whole war is another question," McCarthy explained in a 2003 interview. "I don't think Bush understands what he's doing."

Weeks after Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, McCarthy dismissed the endeavor as "a faith-based war" but he warned that its consequences would be agonizingly real for America. Indeed, he suggested, they was already evidence of those consequences to be found in a loss of liberty about which observers of the American experiment had long warned.

Referring to the Patriot Act and related assaults on domestic liberties, the former senator explained that, "de Tocqueville said you'll find you'll lose the freedoms you're supposed to be defending by setting up your defenses against losing them, and that's what's involved in the stuff that Bush is doing. We haven't lost any of our liberties to the Iraqis yet, but we've had our own liberties curtailed."

It remains true that America has suffered from a lack of poetry in our politics, but it is surely also true that we have suffered from a slow disconnection with the best of our values and traditions. With McCarthy's death, that disconnect grows a little more severe, and America's circumstance a tad more perilous.

John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), a book that historian Howard Zinn says "reminds us that our opposition to empire has a long and noble tradition in this country."

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