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The Poet Who Took On LBJ

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By George F. Will
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I love you so. . . . Gone? Who will swear you wouldn't have done good to the country, that fulfillment wouldn't have done good to you.

-- Robert Lowell

"For Eugene McCarthy"

(July 1968)

By August 1968 Sen. Eugene McCarthy was gone and his supporters were left to wonder how -- whether -- his fulfillment was connected to doing good to the country. When the Democratic convention nominated another Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey -- who in 1964 won the vice presidential nomination McCarthy had craved -- McCarthy went to the south of France, then covered the World Series for Life magazine. Had he campaigned for Humphrey, who narrowly lost, there probably would have been no Nixon presidency.

McCarthy died last Saturday in his 90th year, in this city which he sometimes seemed to include in his capacious disdain but which, for a while, he leavened with a distinctive sensibility. In 1980 he endorsed Ronald Reagan, reasoning that Reagan could not be worse than Jimmy Carter. But even in 1968 he had a sometimes ill-disguised disdain for many who flocked to his diffidently unfurled banner.

Disgusted by Vietnam policy, he laconically announced himself "willing" to be an "adequate" president, and went to New Hampshire to unseat his party's president. McCarthy got 41.9 percent of the vote. Lyndon Johnson got 49.6 percent -- all write-ins; his name was not on the ballot -- and three weeks later withdrew from the race.

McCarthy's 1968 achievement elevated New Hampshire's primary to the status it has subsequently enjoyed. His death occurred the day the Democratic Party gingerly suggested modifying its primary schedule in a way that might diminish New Hampshire's potency.

The sacramental status of Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary as the first two nominating events testifies to the power of the mere passage of time to sanctify the accidental, even the unreasonable. Now the Democratic Party suggests allowing one or two states to hold caucuses -- not primaries -- between Iowa and New Hampshire.

The case against caucuses is that they take hours, often at night, and thus disproportionately attract the ideologically fervid -- not what the Democratic Party needs. The case against New Hampshire's primary is that its power is disproportionate for a state so unrepresentative of America's demographic complexities. The case for New Hampshire can be put in a name: Gene McCarthy. The small state gives an unknown underdog challenger, practicing retail politics, a fighting chance.

McCarthy's insurgency, the most luminous memory of many aging liberals, would today be impossible -- criminal, actually -- thanks to the recent "reform" most cherished by liberals, the McCain-Feingold campaign regulations. McCarthy's audacious challenge to an incumbent president was utterly dependent on large early contributions from five rich liberals. Stewart Mott's $210,000 would be more than $1.2 million in today's dollars. McCain-Feingold codifies two absurdities: Large contributions are inherently evil and political money can be limited without limiting political speech. McCain-Feingold criminalizes the sort of seed money that enabled McCarthy to be heard. Under McCain-Feingold's current limit of $2,100 per contributor, McCarthy's top five contributors combined could have given just $10,500, which in 1968 dollars would have been just $1,834.30. But, then, McCain-Feingold was written by incumbents to protect what they cherish: themselves.

McCarthy first seized national attention with a theatrical act, a gesture of elegant futility. At the 1960 convention, when John Kennedy's nomination was already certain, McCarthy delivered an eloquent philippic urging a third nomination for the man who had been trounced in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson.

Witty, elegant and problematic, Stevenson was the intelligentsia's darling and a harbinger of liberalism curdled by condescension toward ordinary Americans. When an aide assured Stevenson he had the votes of thinking people, Stevenson quipped: But I need a majority. A majority of the disdained?

McCarthy's acerbic wit sometimes slid into unpleasantness, as when, after Gov. George Romney, the Michigan Republican, said that briefers in Vietnam had "brainwashed" him, McCarthy said that surely a light rinse would have sufficed. McCarthy's wit revealed an aptitude for condescension, an aptitude that charmed intellectuals but not Americans condescended to.

A talented poet, McCarthy, in his mordant "The Tamarack," surely summarized his experience of being beaten by Robert Kennedy after New Hampshire:

The tamarack tree is the saddest tree of all; it is the first tree to invade the swamp, and when it makes the soil dry enough, the other trees come and kill it.

Never mind his subsequent lackadaisical presidential campaigns. After 1968 he adhered to the fourth of the commandments in his "10 Commandments":

Do not relight a candle whose flame has drowned in its own excess of wax.

georgewill@washpost.com


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