The Riddle of a Bold Campaign: What Snapped Inside McCarthy?

Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism , by Dominic Sandbrook. Alfred A. Knopf, 397 pages, $25.95.

Eugene McCarthy was steely and whimsical, inspired and doomed, gallant and cruel, self-possessed andself-destructive, thoughthelastgets mixed up with the issue of sacrifice. They used to burn people like him: He could see into dark places. “Intellectual pride” fouled his youthful flirtation with the Catholic priesthood, but he rode his gifts almost to the top in this sinful world. Piercing insight made him, on internal cue, uniquely daring; at other times, it paralyzed him. He was imaginative beyond the norm and demanded to be misapprehended; he threw his franchise away. He was-wasn’t he?-endlessly perverse.

He had the reflective, dignified manner of an adult-politics was more adult then. Playing against that were his irreverent poet’s ear, naturalist’s eye and witty downbeat syncopation. Once on the Senate floor in the early 1960’s, he slipped me (I had a summer job in the majority leader’s office) an aside about political marginalization of a particular kind. A couple of liberal Republicans were engaged that afternoon in some rhetorical exercise, futile and pious. “Liberal Republicans,” he murmured. “Unreliable allies, hard to pin them down …. ” (Wry smile; voice of the earnest Jacob Javits of New York hedging some position or other in the background.) “Sort of like pigeons, hunh? Ever try to kick a pigeon?”

Senator McCarthy’s 1968 Presidential campaign was condemned at the start by flocks of journalists as vain folly. Indeed, the passage of time makes it almost impossible to recall how entrenched the fortress of officialdom was before he challenged it. He stood alone, face to face, against the modern imperial Presidency at full tide; turned it for a season. Then he disappeared. For those of us drawn to him in the anti–Vietnam War uprising that year, as well as for those who looked to others, especially Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy’s name became synonymous with lament for the epic might-have-beens of 1968. There’s the wistful view-and for many committed activists who felt he abandoned them, the bitter one. Damn it, he had depth, wit and charm; he’d been a terror in the hockey rink; he knew the moves. What snapped inside him, and when?

On the other hand, he left trails in the forest. For example, in contrast to indignation against the Bush administration this year, he intuited that unseating a controversial war President involves subtle martial art: He steered clear of personal condemnation, quoted Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” Mr. McCarthy had ties to Johnson, who almost picked him as his running mate in 1964, and he understood him. He saw that ad hominem attacks would have helped the embattled President rally the flag. So he crafted a more coalescent appeal: We had been drawn into Vietnam by sleight of hand, the executive branch of government had become unaccountable, the country needed to make a “moral judgment” on the fait accompli. Focusing in his dry way on illegitimacy of procedure, he forced the radical elements of his campaign into concert with a flood of independents and Republicans. Such positioning lent him Presidential stature. In opinion polls, Mr. McCarthy ran ahead of Richard Nixon and better than Vice President Hubert Humphrey, well after Humphrey locked up the Democratic nomination.

Differences between this moment and that one are sharp. The Vietnam policy showdown occurred within the Democratic Party (though it was heavily influenced by crossover primary voters and polling). And in contrast to George W. Bush today, Lyndon Johnson was as tortured about Vietnam as any of his critics. But one common imperative leaps out: It takes genius to marry moral outrage to a winning political strategy.

And here, in timely manner, is a thoroughly researched, intelligent biography that does Eugene McCarthy-who’s alive and alert at 87-the honor of taking him seriously. But it arrives with a few missing parts. The author, Dominic Sandbrook, is a young British scholar of American history. But he’s not yet a master of characterological warp, and in this case, there’s warp worthy of a great novel. Nonetheless, he has much of value to say about 1968 as “a pivotal moment in the history of both the Democratic Party and modern American liberalism.” That’s what interests him; Mr. McCarthy is merely the vehicle. Mr. Sandbrook picks his subject’s prickly persona dry and grinds up the bones-but Mr. McCarthy remains elusive.

The historical argument is essentially this: Postwar American liberalism was fueled for two decades by leftover Roosevelt- and Truman-era agenda items like medical care for the aged and stale anticommunism. Liberal anticommunism is treated here as “an excellent route to political success”-that is, a politic, even opportunistic choice-“for an ambitious young man in the late 1940s,” as distinct from informed good sense. This is a critical stance common among young academics (Mr. Sandbrook was born six years after the events of 1968), intended to recover a progressive tradition and discount the historical canon for overreaction to the Red Scare (the one that made the name of the other McCarthy-Joe-infamous.)

The result, in this case, is a clinically removed reading of postwar farm-labor anticommunist liberal leaders, including Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther and Mr. McCarthy, presenting their political character without reference to the deeds or nature of Stalinism in action from the Moscow purges, Spain and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 forward. Bit of a gap. (I remember watching Mr. McCarthy at a small outdoor antiwar rally near the Harvard campus late in 1967, quoting with mordant passion George Orwell’s great lines about bureaucratic doublespeak in the Western and Soviet empires alike from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets; this is called pacification …. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.” Snow fell as he spoke. The Orwell connection to the soul of sophisticated liberal anticommunism is not on Mr. Sandbrook’s screen.)

Gene McCarthy himself was an obscure Minnesota academician immersed in modern Catholic philosophy and social science, linked to Hubert Humphrey’s bustling Minneapolis political clubhouse, but a step aside. He went to the House of Representatives from St. Paul as a New Deal–Fair Deal Democrat in 1948. Speaker Sam Rayburn spotted him as a comer, savvy enough about economics to go to the House Ways and Means Committee-the keys to the Congressional club. Up to the Senate in a Democratic year, 1958. Didn’t get on with the Kennedys; “jealousy” is the commonly attributed reason. The word on him became: smart, able, funny, lazy. With memorable eloquence, he placed Adlai Stevenson’s name in nomination at the 1960 Democratic Convention-a counter-Kennedy act coordinated at various levels with Lyndon Johnson. Experts at the game agreed: Whatever else he was, the intellectually supple Senator McCarthy had no interest in the political fashion of the year, dared to play the odds. Sui generis.

Back to the main story line. By 1968, the old New Deal–Fair Deal coalition had grown unstable. The white working class, blacks, Hispanics and other immigrants, the swelling suburbs, the South, restless youth, could no longer coalesce without fresh outlets for new demands. Vietnam was a nightmare for real. Fury in the streets. Cautions of various kinds inhibited the fiery natural tribune of new alignments, Robert Kennedy, from stepping forward. Reluctantly, influenced by disparate war critics and skeptics, the coolly rational, anti-heroic Gene McCarthy accepted the man-of-the-hour role. All winter, the absurdity of the facts, logic, ethical rationale and visual images of the Vietnam endeavor deepened. Against all odds, Mr. McCarthy soared at the polls, the earth moved in the March 12 New Hampshire primary, and Lyndon Johnson in effect abdicated his Presidency on March 31. And anarchy was unleashed. Kennedy entered the race on the heels of Mr. McCarthy’s strong showing in New Hampshire. Each of them won primary races and delegates. Then, on June 4, Kennedy took the big contested one between them (California)-and was murdered. But in that time frame, some part of Eugene McCarthy collapsed, and his campaign became dysfunctional.

The anticlimaxes followed like relentless bad weather; Humphrey’s dreary run as the Democratic nominee, Johnson’s glowering lame-duck hold on the action, Mr. McCarthy’s late, minimal endorsement of his old Minnesota ally, Nixon’s scoop-up of the pieces. In 1969 and 1970, Mr. McCarthy compounded his own abdication, discarding his place on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then his Senate seat, then his marriage to his talented political partner, Abigail McCarthy.

Thanks in part to Abigail’s shrewd post-mortems, Mr. Sandbrook emerges from his historical template to grasp the shattering personal significance of what Gene McCarthy had wrought. He quotes Abigail on the post-1968 self-exile: “He wanted to cut off everything and that is what he did …. He had to be against his party, against his home state, people”-and against his wife. “It was a dividing point in his life-and he had to divide from so much to do it … so many things that mattered.”

As it happens, I had my own foretaste of what she meant. Mr. McCarthy was in Boston in late November 1967, just before he announced his candidacy. I was an editor at The Atlantic at the time, writing a piece about the McCarthy campaign for our January 1968 issue. We had kept up; I’d seen some of the Senator’s writings into print at the magazine. (To my regret, we failed to publish such poems as his song of the road, “Three Bad Signs”: “The second Bad Sign is this: / ‘Mixed Drinks’ / … Mixed drink is manhattan red / Between the adult movie and the unmade … bed / … ‘Mixed Drinks’ is the sign of contradiction.” Mr. McCarthy’s poems do not interest Mr. Sandbrook.)

We lunched, that November day, at the Ritz Grill down the street from The Atlantic, looking out on the Public Garden-awfully civilized. I asked him about the journalistic refrain that he was “committing political suicide.” (Mr. Sandbrook quotes a rote line of his response.) Then we were off the record. An intense shared interest in what made Lyndon Johnson tick was the subtext: “Lyndon looks formidable … but we both know he hates confrontation. If I do at all well, he’ll probably pull out.” (No one in politics or the press was predicting so bizarre a turn in the road; Mr. McCarthy was still nowhere in the polls.) “That’s reason to go ahead. It would stop the escalation …. But if that happens, Bobby comes in …. And then it’s all over …. “

I’ve come to believe that Mr. McCarthy’s personal crisis-when he suddenly froze-was about forbidden powers of mind. Accounts of his immediate response to Robert Kennedy’s assassination feature “ravaged” shock, but are cryptic. Undoubtedly, he’d spoken to others in the prefatory time frame of November as he did to me, but I’ve never seen it in print. I don’t know. But I do know that I heard him tell the fortunes at dawn, his prophecy exact, except for the fatal, concluding violence.

The lonely gesture of waging a “quixotic” antiwar campaign was in fact the consciously aimed trigger of a staged drama of effect. His advantage was that he knew Johnson’s ambivalence better, or at least more consequentially, than the other players that year (some narrators of 1968 tend to lose the dark Shakespearean thread of Johnson’s role in the drama). By making the leap from prophecy to act-this is in Mr. McCarthy’s own mind-he ended Johnson’s career. (Gone, Johnson had nothing much to live for, as he demonstrated.) And if Mr. McCarthy engineered a face-off between himself and Kennedy (a more haunting personal rival to him than L.B.J.), then de facto-again, in Mr. McCarthy’s own mind-he killed Kennedy. (Mr. Sandbrook merely reflects on the campaign’s rivalrous bad blood and McCarthy’s subsequent feelings, which some took to be guilty. Mr. Sandbrook is perhaps more concerned with the damage Mr. McCarthy did his old friend Humphrey in late 1968, but it was the latter’s subservience to Johnson that sank his Presidential hopes.)

If prophecy carries weight, then McCarthy’s “lives of the saints” offering of himself as a candidate in late 1967 was also (in his head) an offense against the gods. Abigail McCarthy wrote in her own memoir that, alone at a friend’s country house on the eve of the 1968 Chicago convention, her husband told her, “We’re not tough enough for this.” I think he meant the snakes within, not the impending debacle in which Mayor Richard Daley, the Chicago police and the White House shut down the New Politics for the year.

This book, and a number of accounts less complete, give us Eugene McCarthy as a flawed man of exquisite intellect, a poet afflicted with self-knowledge (“I have left Act I, for involution / and Act II. There mired in complexity / I cannot write Act III”). The public judgment, the kind he stood up for in 1968, is that he let us down. But the fact remains that, when it mattered, no one else was willing or able to stand effectually, out front, against the deepening escalation in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson’s dubious command of the mess, the doublespeak. Eugene McCarthy was himself a contradictory sign, a mixed bag of deep morality, hubris and guilt: You couldn’t have the unmatchable courage and imagination without the self-crippling doomsday instinct. For by the time he was done, he was-in his heart and mind-twice a regicide. And somewhere inside there was-for so profound and profane a sinner-nothing to do but live out his years as a jester, as the fool.

Michael Janeway, professor of journalism and arts at Columbia, is the author of The Fall of the House of Roosevelt:BrokersofIdeasand Power from FDR to LBJ (Columbia University Press).