Today on Blogcritics
Home » Eugene McCarthy – The Last Great Progressive

Eugene McCarthy – The Last Great Progressive

Please Share...Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0Share on TumblrShare on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

COURAGE AFTER SIXTY
by Eugene McCarthy

Now it is certain.
There is no magic stone.
No secret to be found.
One must go
With the mind’s winnowed learning.
No more than the child’s handhold
On the willows bending over the lake,
On the sumac roots at the cliff edge.
Ignorance is checked,
Betrayals scratched.
The coat has been hung on the peg,
The cigar laid on the table edge,
The cue chosen and chalked,

The balls set for the final break.
All cards drawn,
All bets called.
The dice, warm as blood in the hand,
Shaken for the last cast.
The glove has been thrown to the ground,
The last choice of weapons made.

A book for one thought.
A poem for one line.
A line for one word.

“Broken things are powerful.”
Things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is truest.

This past weekend, largely unnoticed by the nation and pointedly ignored by the Democratic Party which considered him a traitor, Eugene McCarthy folded his last campaign tent at a nursing home in Washington DC at the venerable age of 89.

McCarthy was a Congressman and later a Senator from Minnesota, but he is most remembered for his role in the 1968 Democratic primary, where he appeared on the scene as the voice of anti-war youth, mounted an astonishing grassroots campaign with hippies sacrificing their facial hair to the razor so they could take his message door to door. He almost caught Johnson in New Hampshire, and was then picked to bits by the party establishment, though he did scare them into halfway embracing the almost as radical Bobby Kennedy until he was conveniently assassinated, leaving the party convention in a shambles, with McCarthy facing Hubert Humphrey for the nomination. McCarthy had the most electoral votes of any remaining candidate, while Humphrey had come in late and had none at all. Notorious Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago held all the cards. He kept McCarthy’s vocal young supporters out of the convention hall with police thugs barricading the doors and busting heads on national TV. Then Daley basically handed the nomination to party-insider Humphrey in a scandalous backroom deal which put a stain of corruption on the soul of the Democratic Party which has only grown since that time. The stench of Chicago was so great that people could actually feel cleaner voting for Richard Nixon for the first time in history.

McCarthy ran for president again in 1972 – I remember attending a rally for his hopeless but inspirational campaign – and in subsequent years he became increasingly marginalized and alienated from his own party. Throughout his career he stuck with the grassroots idealism and non-traditional thinking which had been the hallmark of progressive democrats in the pre-Wilson era and which made him part of a shrinking and unpopular faction within a more and more institutional party. His beliefs were a mixture of populism, libertarianism, goofy idealism, irrational optimism and pure enthusiasm. McCarthy always said what he believed and even if you didn’t agree with him you had to respect his honesty and integrity. His own party never forgave him for rocking the boat of party politics in 1968, and became actively hostile as he drifted away from them and became an outspoken political independent, running without a party in 1976, endorsing Libertarian Ed Clark (whose campaign I worked for) in 1980, and supporting Reagan and many of his policies in the 1980s. He ran for president again as a token progressive voice in 1988 and 1992, fighting to break up the restrictions of the party system and campaign finance laws and open up the presidential debates to all candidates. He wasn’t terribly successful in any of these fights, but they were good causes and highlighted the major problems in our political system which we still face today.

[ADBLOCKHERE]Today’s Democratic Party of mediocrity and mendacity is the direct result of the decision made by party leaders in 1968 to crush McCarthy and stick with their tried and true politics of backroom deals and special interests. Had they possessed the strength of will to change and move forward as a better, more principled party with McCarthy, both parties and our entire political system would be less corrupt and more admirable than they are today. The young leaders of the future would do well to look towards the careers of those who might be called heroic failures like McCarthy and Barry Goldwater for examples of how to revitalize their parties and give the people something to believe in again.

Powered by

About Dave Nalle

  • G. Oren

    Good post Dave – though I’ll take issue with a couple of your comments.

    McCarthy was a genuine progressive, in the vein of LaFollette, and his candidacy in 68 energized the older baby-boomers in that crucible of a campaign that did indeed revolutionize the democratic party. Where I take issue with you is that by 72 the younger and new left elements of the party had taken over the machinery of party politics and made the primaries the central part of the party nomination, so that a brokered convention – such as HHH in 68 – wouldn’t happen again. The result was George McGovern, and the dems have been regretting that one ever since. In other words, the dems did their best to remove the stain of 68 by 72.

    This issue of primaries brings up an important point I think. Prior to 88 (I think it was) the primary and caucus season stretched from January to June with several large states, Texas and California among them, not holding primaries until May and June. The advent of Super-Tuesday has, in my opinion, been a great detriment to the whole process, forcing primary voters to make too early a choice and rewarding too many delegates to a single candidate who usually appears to be leading the pack at that point. We, and the dems in particular, need a more deliberative process, with more delegates awarded later in the process so that the true measure and weight of the candidates can be taken and so that regional strengths can be ascertained. This may ultimately lead back to a brokered convention, albeit one with more forthright and transparent bargaining – but not altogether a bad thing. As things stand now, the too early annointing of a candidate simply serves to cause voters to lose interest and leads candidates to ossify their positions too quickly – it serves to truncate debate rather than encourage it. The last truly engaging convention was the GOP convention in 76, also the last convention where the issue was in doubt until the floor votes.

    Though I agree the dems have fallen to mediocrity and pandering to their special interests, I think its a stretch to blame that fall on their reaction to McCarthy’s candidacy. I think their primary voters have most often opted for an unelectable liberal (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry) without due consideration of the whole electorate and the geographic imperative of the electoral college.

    I agree with you that we need more McCarthy’s and Goldwater’s – politicians not afraid to take a principled stand, to elucidate clear ideas and offer clear alternatives. Though their messages may be coopted by others, they bring essential leaven to the political lump.

  • http://expatriatesitemenu.blogspot.com alpha

    Wow, Dave. Great post; nearly great man (men always have some faults).

    I was a McCarthy supporter in ’68 which is probably what did him in. The people I like never seem to win.

    And I worked in a law firm in Chicago in ’67 under Mayor Daley. Someday remind me to explain how to fold paper money into palm-sized squares. That is why Mexican corruption never surprises me. I missed the ’68 convention and kept my head from being beaten which, of course, I regret.

    Still, I forgot what it was like to have good men run for office. Thank you for the reminder. Let alone the poetry of a good politician. A “good politican” is usually an oxymoron.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    McCarthy was a genuine progressive, in the vein of LaFollette, and his candidacy in 68 energized the older baby-boomers in that crucible of a campaign that did indeed revolutionize the democratic party. Where I take issue with you is that by 72 the younger and new left elements of the party had taken over the machinery of party politics and made the primaries the central part of the party nomination, so that a brokered convention – such as HHH in 68 – wouldn’t happen again. The result was George McGovern, and the dems have been regretting that one ever since. In other words, the dems did their best to remove the stain of 68 by 72.

    I agree that the change in the primary structure was generally positive – and it happened in both parties. But that doesn’t mean that innovative thinkers like McCarthy gained any advantage in the process. If anything the primary structure was designed to weed them out before the candidates got anywhere near a convention.

    The advent of Super-Tuesday has, in my opinion, been a great detriment to the whole process, forcing primary voters to make too early a choice and rewarding too many delegates to a single candidate who usually appears to be leading the pack at that point. We, and the dems in particular, need a more deliberative process, with more delegates awarded later in the process so that the true measure and weight of the candidates can be taken and so that regional strengths can be ascertained.

    Can’t argue with this. Super Tuesday is way too early, and it has the effect of polarizing the primary and putting one person in the lead too soon and too completely. Nothing is really contested anymore after that.

    IMO a longer and harder fought campaing season might actually help motivate voters for the general election.

    Though I agree the dems have fallen to mediocrity and pandering to their special interests, I think its a stretch to blame that fall on their reaction to McCarthy’s candidacy. I think their primary voters have most often opted for an unelectable liberal (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry) without due consideration of the whole electorate and the geographic imperative of the electoral college.

    I think that just as McCarthy was driven from the party so were a lot of his supporters and sympathizers. The idealists became disenchanted with the party and either lost interest in politics or even joined the the GOP, leaving behind the unionists and elitists and panderers.

    Dave

  • Eric Olsen

    very nice Dave, thanks – I agree this one is Opinion, but even this is reasonably close to the new line

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Dave, nice job. I could nit pick with you on some of what you wrote, but others have already made the points I would have.

    I will say this. Had you predicted that the Democratic party would sink to mendacity and mediocrity (you’re being charitable in that assesment – this from one who used to be a Democratic party activist) in 1979 or 1980 in Minnesota, you would have been beaten to shreds (literally) by the worshippers of “St. Hubert.”

    All politicians have their moments. McCarthy’s was the spring of 1968, JFK’s was his inaugural speech, and Hubert Humphrey’s was his address to the Democratic Convention in 1948.

    And that is the point. Most politicians have merely moments. Statesmen have a longer time, and accomplish more.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    I think that just as McCarthy was driven from the party so were a lot of his supporters and sympathizers. The idealists became disenchanted with the party and either lost interest in politics or even joined the the GOP, leaving behind the unionists and elitists and panderers.

    I would actually have to go with ’68 as well, Dave, but I think that the Bobby Kennedy assassination was equally responsible for what happened to the Democrats. As you said, RFK was nearly as radical as McCarthy, and triple his charisma. Between that and being the symbol of a Democratic martyr, Kennedy would easily have won the nomination for President and would equally easily have beaten Nixon. (In my opinion.)

    I will even go so far as to say that an RFK nomination might even have prevented (or at least diminished) the riots at the convention; he was progressive enough to satisfy everyone but the staunchest Abbie Hoffman.

    But yes, after RFK, McCarthy was the only real hope of the campaign. And it’s true, the Democrats destroyed him for the sake of the rank-and-file Humphrey. McCarthy was truly a good man and his departure is a sad one.

  • http://www.fotolog.com/butki13 Scott Butki

    Excellent post but why don’t you consider Jimmy Carter a progressive?

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I think of Carter as more of a traditional left-leaning democrat. I don’t see much in his legacy which suggests the desire to innovate or undermine the establishment which I’d associate with a progressive perspective.

    Dave

  • http://www.fotolog.com/butki13 Scott Butki

    Fair enough.

    What about McGovern

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    I debated mentioning McGovern in the article, but didn’t want to muddy the waters. He was not as radical as McCarthy, but followed very much in his footsteps and suffered the same fate of being ostracized by his own party. Plus he’s not dead yet.

    Dave

  • http://www.fotolog.com/butki13 Scott Butki

    Yeah but your title doesn’t say the “last great dead progressive.”

    I met McGOvern in college and he seemed like a genuinely nice guy who will forever be known as the guy Nixon easily defeated.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    What about “Watergate victim”?

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    McCarthy got victimized by his own party well before Watergate.

    And again, on the McGovern comparison, McCarthy really was much more progressive than McGovern, nice fellow though McGovern may be.

    Dave

  • http://pippensqueak.blogspot.com gypsyman

    Miami and the Siege of Chicago by Norman Mailor was my introduction to American politics. Even allowing for Mailor’s ego problems and his insistance on assuming a central role in the proceedings, it was hard not to be stunned by the venality of the Democratic Party bosses.

    Your summation and assesment mesh so much with mine that it actually scares me, but what the hell. I’m only sorry it took me untill now to find this article. What a wonderful tribute to an inspirational man, and a bitter reminder of how far politics and politicians have fallen from those heady idealistic times.

    It reminds me too much of your other wonderful essay on J.F.K. and our dearth of real leaders.

    I may not agree with your politics sometimes Dave, but your insights and analysis are spot on when it comes to historical perspectives. A pleasure to read as always.

    gyspyman