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.”