Even the poets are restless now. They¡¦re not content to go along with Shelley and be the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They want to be acknowledged just a little bit.
Eugene McCarthyMarch, 1968
Eugene McCarthy, who has died more quietly than he lived at the venerable age of 89, will be remembered first and foremost as the courageous Minnesota senator who, when the anti-Vietnam War movement needed a champion in the political arena, took up the fight and deposed one of the most powerful presidents in history.
But of McCarthy, to a greater extent than any contemporary political figure except perhaps former President Jimmy Carter, it can fairly be said that he was much more than maverick senator and an epic presidential contender.
He was, as well, a literary contender — a poet whose determination to leap from the role of truth teller and angry scold that Percy Bysshe Shelley envisioned when he dubbed poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” into the actual legislature and leadership of a global superpower.
It was the poetic impulse that served to explain the most inspired and the most frustrating aspects of McCarthy’s long and often quixotic journey across the American political landscape. Indeed, it was in the thick of the 1968 campaign, when his more prominent foes were declining to debate McCarthy that the senator suggested “a poetry contest” where the battle would could down to “who can develop the best rhymes or the best lines — if we leave it that open…”
McCarthy did not win the presidency. But he would have won his poetry contest hands down.
And if Walt Whitman celebrated his own life as the great poem of America in its questing 19th century moment, then surely Gene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign was — in its brief shining moment — the great poem of the American political experience.
In these darker days of that experience, it is difficult to imagine a lyrical politics.
Politics and poetry are infrequently associated — to the detriment of both endeavors.
But four decades ago, in a different and more hopeful America, politics and poetry had a brief acquaintance.
In the fall of 1967, millions of Americans had come to the conclusion that the only way to get U.S. troops out of the quagmire that was Vietnam was to depose President Lyndon Johnson. No small maneuver this — as Johnson had been elected in a 1964 landslide and retained an air of invincibility. But a small band of anti-war Democrats determined to find a U.S. senator brave –or foolish — enough to take on his own president and party.
They found an unlikely candidate in a senator from Minnesota who was at least as serious about literature as he was about politics. McCarthy was a radical anomaly in American politics even then, a former college professor who began one of the most important speeches of that 1968 campaign – an address to a great rally in the Dane County Coliseum in Madison Wisconsin — by quoting, from memory, a long section of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
McCarthy’s literary bent tended to put off fellow senators, who sometimes dismissed him as too prone to rumination and independent thinking for the game of politics. But it sat well with the ragtag band of political dreamers who dared believe they could defeat a sitting president, end a foolish war and set right a nation.
Their slogan was: “To begin anew… .”
His supporters were the sort of romantic radicals who maintained that it was not merely possible, but in fact necessary, to turn the wheel of politics and governance further than more restrained activists of their day — and the days since — would imagine it might go.
Several years ago, when we were talking about our mutual friend Midge Miller, who played a pivotal role in the Wisconsin primary campaign that would yield the great victory of his crusade, McCarthy explained what distinguished Miller and so many of the others who helped him turn the wheel in 1968.
“Midge had been active before my campaign. She knew politics. That made her invaluable, because most people who ‘knew’ politics were certain that our campaign was doomed to fail,” McCarthy said of the woman who would go on to be a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and to serve many years as a Wisconsin legislator. “She was that rare combination: someone with experience who still believed that great things were possible.”
McCarthy and his supporters achieved that which older and “wiser” liberals deemed impossible. They built a campaign so strong that a stunned Johnson responded with an eve-of-the-primary announcement that he was ending his re-election effort. In Wisconsin that spring, McCarthy wrote a poem that well captured the ironic, insurgent and, above all, romantic character of that campaign:
Whose foot is on the treadle
That turns the burning stars
Has spun the world half way round
Since last I called
Come down, come down.
That stars that in September
Looked through the mournful rain
Now set their sight again
Upon a world half night, half light
Men of distant years have said
That much depends on change of seasons
On solstices and equinox
And they have given reasons.
Too much turns on inadvertence
On what seems to be
An accident of hand and knee
A chance sunrise
A glance of eyes
Eugene McCarthy and his followers put their feet to the treadle in 1967 and 1968, challenged the men of distance years, betting on the inadvertence of a poet-senator, and changing the course of their party and their nation. For a moment, all too brief, they found a common ground between poetry and politics — and they inspired a nation, or at least a few of its more adventurous states, to take a leap of faith.
Even if McCarthy sometimes gave up the ground over the years, many of those who were with him in that distant campaign have stood it ever since – calling the rest of us to believe in the prospect that an inspired few can spin the world half way round.
McCarthy always recognized that it was not just he who had the poetry in him.
“We proved something in that 1968 campaign,” McCarthy explained to me a few years ago, during that conversation about Midge Miller and the others who drew him into the race and who sustained him through its unimagined triumphs and its bitter disappointments. “We showed that you could challenge the two political parties and all the powerful institutions in that country, and we did so with some success. (The backers of that 1968 campaign believed), when few others did, that we could take on all the institutions of politics – the parties, the media, the pollsters, the military-industrial complex. You had to have something of the poet in you to believe that.”
The poet is gone now. But something of him lingers, on a shelf of finer books than we have much right to expect of a politician and in the memory of a campaign more lyrical than all but the luckiest of of us have since experienced.