When Eugene McCarthy made his historic 1968 Presidential bid, I was there.
I was young, idealistic, rebellious, passionate, anti-Vietnam war, and inspired by this man many years my senior. In 1968, the sexual revolution, the generation gap, women's lib, hippies, Rock, Folk music, and the "make love not war" anti-war movement were in full bloom. Often confused, sometimes unsure, I dabbled in each, picking and choosing those aspects of each that seemed to fit.
I remember campaigning, passing out flyers and bumper stickers on streetcorners in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin--Red, white and blue affairs -- "Get Clean for Gene", "McCarthy for President"--chatting with all kinds of people, hoping to instill in them a faith in Gene as strong as my own. It was hit or miss. I never really knew if I changed any minds.
Mostly I remember how this quiet, intellectual soul inspired a generation--a generation disillusioned by the assassination of JFK (and later, RFK and MLK) and the quagmire of Vietnam--to dream of something better, to believe in possibilities again, and to act on those beliefs-- to fight for a better, more ethical, more compassionate America.
It's difficult to explain to someone who hasn't lived though that very confusing period how McCarthy became such a force against evil--he, at the center, we, ever ready at his flanks. Or how his ethics and beliefs are so very poignant in today's divided, morally bankrupt, angry political arena.
I will never forget those idealistic days in 1968. I will never forget Eugene McCarthy. Though I barely knew the man personally, he left an indelible mark on my soul for which I am forever thankful.
Goodnight, Senator McCarthy. May you rest in peace.
OTHER TRIBUTES TO GENE McCARTHY FOLLOW:
The Limits of Power
By John Nichols
"[A]t 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.
McCarthy wrote, 'Many of our problems today are the result of our unwillingness or inability in the past to anticipate what may be the shape of the world 20 years in the future.... There is never a totally painless way to pull back from either unwise, ill-advised, or outdated ideas or commitments. But throughout history, mighty nations have learned the limit of power. There are lessons to be learned from Athens, from Rome, from 16th-Century Spain."
He raged as only an American prophet could, about how George Bush, Dick Cheney and their neoconservative allies had, with their advocacy for an unprovoked attack on Iraq, 'introduced new concepts about preventing war that are wholly unacceptable in our tradition.'
'There are things you do in a war which are preventive, but to just announce it as a general proposition that you're justified in starting a whole war is another question,' McCarthy explained in a 2003 interview. ' don't think Bush understands what he's doing.'
Weeks after Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, McCarthy dismissed the endeavor as 'a faith-based war' but he warned that its consequences would be agonizingly real for America. Indeed, he suggested, there was already evidence of those consequences to be found in a loss of liberty about which observers of the American experiment had long warned.
It remains true that America has suffered from a lack of poetry in our politics, but it is surely also true that we have suffered from a slow disconnection with the best of our values and traditions. With McCarthy's death, that disconnect grows a little more severe, and America's circumstance a tad more perilous.
Eugene McCarthy's Lyrical Politics
By John Nichols
"McCarthy and his supporters achieved that which older and 'wiser' liberals deemed impossible. They built a campaign so strong that a stunned Johnson responded with an eve-of-the-primary announcement that he was ending his re-election effort. In Wisconsin that spring, McCarthy wrote a poem that well captured the ironic, insurgent and, above all, romantic character of that campaign:
Whose foot is on the treadle
That turns the burning stars
Has spun the world half way round
Since last I called
Come down, come down.
That stars that in September
Looked through the mournful rain
Now set their sight again
Upon a world half night, half light
Men of distant years have said
That much depends on change of seasons
On solstices and equinox
And they have given reasons.
Too much turns on inadvertence
On what seems to be
An accident of hand and knee
A chance sunrise
A glance of eyes
Eugene McCarthy and his followers put their feet to the treadle in 1967 and 1968, challenged the men of distance years, betting on the inadvertence of a poet-senator, and changing the course of their party and their nation. For a moment, all too brief, they found a common ground between poetry and politics -- and they inspired a nation, or at least a few of its more adventurous states, to take a leap of faith.
Even if McCarthy sometimes gave up the ground over the years, many of those who were with him in that distant campaign have stood it ever since - calling the rest of us to believe in the prospect that an inspired few can spin the world half way round.
McCarthy always recognized that it was not just he who had the poetry in him.
'We proved something in that 1968 campaign,' McCarthy explained to me a few years ago, during that conversation about Midge Miller and the others who drew him into the race and who sustained him through its unimagined triumphs and its bitter disappointments. 'We showed that you could challenge the two political parties and all the powerful institutions in that country, and we did so with some success. (The backers of that 1968 campaign believed), when few others did, that we could take on all the institutions of politics - the parties, the media, the pollsters, the military-industrial complex. You had to have something of the poet in you to believe that.'
The poet is gone now. But something of him lingers, on a shelf of finer books than we have much right to expect of a politician and in the memory of a campaign more lyrical than all but the luckiest of of us have since experienced."
The Washington Post
"Being in politics is like being a football coach; you have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important." -- Eugene McCarthy, 1968.