Gene McCarthy was a pure original. No other senator had the combination of endowments Gene possessed: He was a philosopher, a skilled 6′ 4″ baseball and hockey player, a visionary statesman, a moralist, an eloquent orator and graceful poet with a mastery of English diction and a wit equal to Shaw’s that had no match in the Senate.
He, of course, was a human being with his own trademark faults. At times he seemed to retire to his lair rather than engage in battles on the Senate floor or in committee. Sometimes his wit inflicted needless pain on those less well endowed in brain or tongue. Once when I expressed admiration for the courage of a Republican colleague, Gene snorted: “He has the kind of courage of a soldier who observes the battlefield from a hill and then rides down to shoot the enemy’s wounded men.”
When I was elected to the House of Representatives in 1956, Gene had already been there for eight years. He accepted me as one of his freshman wards. Soon I found myself invited to be a member of a small Friday luncheon group that included Stewart Udall, Frank Thompson, Lee Metcalf and Gene. Those lunches, which usually included a martini or two, gave me a splendid introduction both to practical Washington politics and to contemporary issues. As the youngest member of the group I had the most to learn, and no freshman could have had four better teachers.
Gene went on to organize a larger group of House liberals known as McCarthy’s Marauders, which blossomed into the even larger House Democratic Study Group. Big, brilliant, witty McCarthy was a hero to the liberals in the House.
There is an incident in 1957 with which I will forever associate Gene. I announced in March of that year that I would be giving my maiden speech on a certain date. My theme was the failing farm program of Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson–a high official in the Mormon Church. A number of my Congressional colleagues were present to draw me out in a series of queries. One of these exchanges angered a Congressman Hill of Colorado, who defended Benson as “a man of God.” To this, Gene observed that it would be difficult to continue the debate over agricultural issues if God were against us. This prompted Hill to rebuke him for ridiculing religion. I wish, he said, that the gentleman from Minnesota had seen a drama on TV that showed “some French girl” dying at the stake for holding fast to her faith in God. “Well,” said Gene, “I did see that show, but I don’t think Joan of Arc went to her death in defense of flexible farm price supports!” This prompted Congressman Tom Abernathy to say, “Mr. Speaker, if we’re going to debate this farm issue from a theological perspective, I ask unanimous consent to speak for the Methodists.”
Gene’s most fundamental historical achievement came in 1968–a decade after he left the House for election to the Senate. Urged on by some of the Vietnam War opponents, he decided to run for the Democratic presidential nomination against President Lyndon Johnson. The significance of this courageous step was that it gave the growing number of Americans who opposed our disastrous enterprise in Vietnam an appealing standard-bearer who was aiming at the White House.
Gene’s campaign, with its moral and philosophical overtones, reached a broad segment of the public. He ran exceedingly well in some of the early primaries–notably, New Hampshire and Wisconsin–which prompted President Johnson not to seek re-election despite his sweeping landslide victory over Senator Barry Goldwater only four years earlier.
The ancient Roman rhetorician Quintilian defined an orator as “a good man speaking well.” I give you Gene McCarthy–a good man who thought, wrote, spoke and quipped well.
And Gene, when you enter the Pearly Gates of the mystery beyond, remember Kurt Vonnegut’s reassuring promise in his current book, “There is no reason good can’t triumph over evil, if only angels will get organized along the lines of the Mafia.”
How about a heavenly battalion of McCarthy’s Marauders–God willing, of course?