The Faith of Eugene McCarthy

The Faith of Eugene McCarthy

Eugene McCarthy, the Minnesota senator, frequent presidential candidate and poet who died Saturday at age 89, never had a chance at the Democratic nomination in 1968. But his passionate anti-Vietnam war campaign would change the course of the war.


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.

Every four years, McCarthy becomes hyperactive, either as a front man for another candidate or running for himself. Except in 1952, when he was too busy at home exterminating a Republican opponent who was trying to smear him as “soft on communism,” McCarthy has been in the thick of every national election since he was elected to Congress in 1948. In 1956 he handled Hubert Humphrey’s campaign for the Vice Presidential nomination, in 1960 he stumped first for Humphrey as the Presidential candidate; then, when Hubert faltered, switched to Lyndon Johnson, and finally, in a burst of supreme drama, gave the only strong appeal at the convention for the consideration of Adlai Stevenson (“do not reject this man…do not. I say, leave this prophet without honor in his own party”). It was never clear whether his plea that the delegates withhold final decision past the first balloting was meant to help the candidacy of Stevenson or Johnson, but in any event he was unsuccessful in getting the convention to listen to him–as he had been unsuccessful in each of his previous forays into national politics, and was again to be unsuccessful in 1964 when he sought to become Johnson’s Vice Presidential running-mate. Total failure, in fact, has attended McCarthy’s efforts to place himself or a friend on the Democratic national ticket. But, unlike Stassen, McCarthy has never seemed to be much handicapped by his reverses. If he has fallen short of the nation’s approval, he has also escaped its pity, and thus his present candidacy comes with a freshness despite the experiences of 1956, 1960 and 1964.

His candidacy is also fresh because this time he is not motivated by personal ambition. He knows he cannot, by working through a scattering of primaries, unhorse Johnson at the national convention and get the nomination himself. But by inviting participatory criticism of the President in a few primaries, he can increase the momentum that could unseat Johnson in the general election, unless Johnson squashes the Pentagon and obtains peace. “The McCarthy candidacy is likely to fade sadly if the outlook in Vietnam visibly improves greatly,” Joseph Alsop observes in one of his oddest quibbles. “That is the real weakness in the Senator’s program.” It is a weakness that McCarthy prizes.

McCarthy doesn’t want in, not now. He just wants an unrepentant Johnson out. He doesn’t like what the man stands for. And the best way to tick off his LBJ dislikes, in scale of importance, is to recall why McCarthy once called Adlai Stevenson “the purest politician of our times.” He still feels that way about Stevenson because his career, by McCarthy’s reckoning, embodied these three principles:

“First, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind in world affairs.” (It is not necessary to remind anyone of LBJ’s total disregard for the world’s opinion of his activities in Vietnam.)

“Second, a willingness to accept the judgment of the majority and popular will in domestic politics, as manifest in party conventions or in general elections.” (The will of the majority in 1964, disregarded by LBJ, was clearly not to escalate the war in Vietnam.)

“And third, by unselfish surrender of his own personal reputation and image for the good of the common effort if, in his judgment, that surrender would advance the cause of justice and order and civility.”

This third principle is what will bring McCarthy, if anything does, into the Presidential campaign. It is a principle (not unlike a willingness to be martyred) that would concern a moralist more than a politician, and McCarthy is indeed a moralist, as he has sometimes shown when debating issues.

Always the Senate’s foremost crusader for improving the working conditions of migrant laborers, and for prohibiting the importation of Mexican braceros, McCarthy once told the Senate: “The moral problem should be of more concern than the problem of whether we are to have cheap tomatoes or pickles.” One of McCarthy’s often repeated wisecracks was his suggestion that he deserved the nomination in 1960 because “I’m more liberal than Hubert and more Catholic than Kennedy.” He is right on both scores.

After a year as a novice in a Benedictine monastery, McCarthy gave up the idea of entering the priesthood but did not cut himself away from religion. When the Supreme Court handed down its school prayer decision in 1962, McCarthy worried about it as being another sign “that ours could be not only a secularized government but a secularized society.” He once said, “In practice, church and state can never be completely separated.” He likes to quote G.K. Chesterton to the effect that the Declaration of Independence is a ”creed set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity.” National interest, he says, “cannot in every case override considerations of right or wrong.” Having braided morality and politics so tightly, he goes on to say that the one thing hampering the effectiveness of most Christians is that they give advice and point the direction “without the support of example.”

It may seem a bit unusual, but McCarthy’s candidacy cannot be put in proper perspective without considering it as a gesture of faith; he has privately preached the necessity of stopping the children of darkness in the White House, and now he will publicly give the leadership. This is not to say that McCarthy is heavy-handedly pious (at least, predominantly Lutheran Minnesota doesn’t seem to think so). Indeed, his alliances among Catholics would probably be strongest with the unregimented Populists, even with back-to-the-soil anarchists such as Dorothy Day and the staff of The Catholic Worker. When much of the Catholic world, lay and cleric (as well as much of the Protestant), was carried away by the anti-communism of the early 1950s, McCarthy was not. In 1952, a vintage year of hysteria when LBJ’s pal, Congressman Homer Thornberry (since appointed to the federal bench), was pushing a bill to permit Washington officials to fire “security risks without having to go to the Civil Service Commission and go through a lot of red tape on appeals,” McCarthy, then in the House, tried to amend the bill in such a way that security risks could stay in non-sensitive government jobs. In those days that as a dangerous position.

It’s true, McCarthy has said that Johnson has used the Supreme Court as a public relations purification medium for the Kennedy assassination investigation, and has turned the Democratic National Committee into a boot-polishing machine, and the Senate into a rubber stamp for foreign policy faits accomplis. But much more important than these particular dislikes is his fear that the power balance within government is being destroyed.

McCarthy has always been a close student of power relationships. Although he was something of a big shot in the House, having put together “McCarthy Marauders” (more formally known as the Democratic Study Group), McCarthy chose to risk his ten-year-old seat to challenge Republican Edward Thye. He was prepared to gamble for a seat in the upper chamber, he explained at the time, because of “the changing relationship of power between the House and the Senate. While upper or second legislative bodies in other democratic countries have declined in power in the course of the last century, some disappearing entirely and others remaining as little more than symbols, the Senate of the United States has grown in power and authority.”

Since reaching the Senate in 1958, he has been among those most jealous of the Senate’s powers, and both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson have offended him by denigrating the Senate’s role, especially in foreign affairs. In 1961 he said, only half jocularly, “We used to be asked to approve a thing before it was done. Now we’re asked after it’s done. It’s the New Frontier.” McCarthy has been one of the real fighters (futilely) to give the Senate more supervision of the CIA, because he looks upon this agency as one of the Executive’s most insidious routes for by-passing Senate supervision of foreign policies. The fact that a few Senators (such as Richard Russell) have access to some of the CIA’S secrets does not appease McCarthy. “lf we were to permit the Executive branch to decide which members of Congress to confide in, the next step,” he said, “would be to ask, why not let the Secretary of State name the members of the Committee on Foreign Relations, or the Secretary of Defense the members of the Armed Services Committee?”

Shaken by the Kennedy-CIA trickery at the Bay of Pigs and by Johnson’s bungling of the Dominican Republic crisis, McCarthy saw our Latin American policy as hanging solely by Executive whim, and harangued his colleagues. “Our function in the Senate is not merely to find out what the Administration policy is and then to say yes or no to it-oftentimes too late. We have a definite responsibility to develop policy ourselves.”

He said that in 1965. He has been saying it ever since. So have other Senators, and most of the headlines have gone to them. Especially to Senator Fulbright, but McCarthy is used to being overlooked. When Robert Kennedy proposed letting the Vietcong have a “share and responsibility” in the South Vietnamese government, the Administration denounced the Kennedy proposal and the fuss stayed in the headlines for several days. In the midst of this, McCarthy noted, somewhat plaintively, that he had made a similar suggestion two weeks earlier and nobody had paid any attention.

Fulbright’s conflicts with the generals have also received much more public attention than have McCarthy’s, although the latter has been much more open In his distrust of the military mind.

Aside from the ideological reasons pushing McCarthy into this campaign, there are the lower impulses, such as revenge. Not only will McCarthy be bearding Johnson, he will also be challenging Robert Kennedy, who thinks he has a franchise on the role of official dissenter. McCarthy has been sorely embarrassed by both camps.

Most infamous, of course, was the use Johnson made of him in 1964 to inject a little drama into what was otherwise obviously going to be a dull, cut-and-dried convention. Johnson teased McCarthy into pushing himself for the Vice President’s spot. Whether or not his action can be traced to this ambition, McCarthy early in 1964 voted to protect the oil-depletion allowance which on three earlier occasions during his Senate career he had voted to cut, The “competition” between McCarthy and Humphrey reached its low point on a Meet the Press television show just before the convention opened; the two Minnesota friends tried to outdo each other in promoting the Johnsonian way of life, and Johnson phoned both men to say he had enjoyed their toadying. “We got a passing grade,” Humphrey giggled. Maybe that was the last straw, or maybe McCarthy finally realized he was being toyed with; anyway, a few hours after the show he wired the White House that he was pulling out of the contest.

As it turned out, McCarthy is glad he didn’t get the job. He believes a Vice President should “stay healthy and quiet,” and doubts that working for LBJ would have permitted him to stay either. As for the Kennedy brand of politics, McCarthy has not forgotten the way big brother Jack treated him in 1961. McCarthy thought for sure he had the strength to pass legislation for suspending the bracero farm labor program that year. But on the afternoon before it was to be brought up on the floor he got a call from President Kennedy saying, sorry, but he was withdrawing his support. “That’s going to be embarrassing.” McCarthy replied. “Yes, I know,” said Kennedy, “so I suggest you get out of town.”

That’s establishment politics. McCarthy never has learned how to play it very well. Which is one reason why so many non-Establishment voters across the country welcome his proposed candidacy.

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