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.