Joan Rivers was wearing a neck-bowing array of beads. We are talking here about the glory days, make that day, of her talk show. That night she had singer-actor John Schneider, formerly of "The Dukes of Hazzard." She had "singing superstar" Patti Austin. And she had Eugene McCarthy.

McCarthy is not so easily summed up in an appellation. One can say former senator, one can say author, one can say presidential candidate, but this is like identifying a substance by the container that holds it. To get it right you would say that for a few months in 1968 Eugene McCarthy stood at the flash point of history with a book of matches in his hand.

Nearly two decades have passed since the heyday of the moral maverick, when McCarthy's challenge unseated a notoriously vindictive president and energized the resistance to the Vietnam war. A generation has grown up knowing more about his nasty wit, lightweight books and quixotic presidential quests than about the electoral miracle he and his army of college students worked in the snows of New Hampshire. The man who once spent a tumultuous political season as the hero of the American left was sitting beside a Duke of Hazzard, quoting G.K. Chesterton. He was a long way from his own glory days.

"Oh you're just lovely," Joan said.

"You like those quotes," McCarthy said. "Chesterton is better than I."

"No you're just as good as Chesterton. I've studied you both."

To legions of friends and former supporters, this visit with Joan, to flack his latest book, was just McCarthy's latest desecration of his own legacy. He lives in a noisy exile now, a long way from the flash point of history.

For McCarthy, this says more about the age than it does about the man. He sees his writing, his initiatives to overturn the federal election law and his scarcely noticed third-party candidacy in 1976 as the continuing witness of a moral man against an immoral society. If all that leads him down a lonely road, well, hasn't it always?

"You get the press saying, 'Why do you hang around Washington, why don't you guys go home after you lose?' " he says. "It's much easier for me to understand politicians who don't walk away from it . . . {J. William} Fulbright, he's 80 years old and he stays around and still makes statements. That's much more understandable than Jerry Ford going off and playing golf and giving those canned speeches."

So McCarthy is still writing and still talking. In "Up 'Til Now," his most recent book, he traces what he views as the decline of American politics in the last three decades. In a final platformlike chapter, he suggests what ought to be done about this and other national woes.

The question is whether anyone is listening, whether the hero of the crusade of '68 is relevant as anything other than a spokesman for his former self.

There are no major towns in Rappahannock County; no industry; no important monuments. "We grow our own apples. We squeeze our own cider," says one sign. "No hunting. Horses roam free," says another.

The highway runs due west into the shade of the Blue Ridge mountains, straight up to a dirt-road left that the state of Virginia has seen fit to call Route 618. Black Angus graze behind the barbed wire. Gourmet mushrooms that fetch $27 a pound flourish on the hillsides.

"Rappahannock County," McCarthy has written, "is a good place from which to look." He lives in Hawlins Hollow, on 14 acres, with a pond, between Juba and School House mountains. A hollow, he wrote, is "the best place to look out and slightly down on the world." (Slightly down, as those who've felt the sting of McCarthy's wit will tell you, is slightly understated.) The circle in his driveway is planted with flowers. A Lake Wobegon sticker is plastered on a pine. Decoy ducks float on the pond.

McCarthy's writing refuge is a home of stone and wood where he lives with Molly, an Australian sheep dog who has one blue eye and one brown. Here, he picks mushrooms on the mountains and watches for deer and wild turkey. Every now and then he sees a bear.

"I try to be out here about four days a week," McCarthy says. He stays with his daughter Ellen when he's in Washington on business. "If you're trying to write, at least in my case, it takes a couple of days for you to kind of stop making excuses. I might come out Sunday, and Monday I don't do much. You might go out and fix the fence or something. By about Wednesday, you're out of excuses."

Even here, though, the world impinges.

"I'd been gone a couple of weeks," McCarthy says of one incident, "and I came back and I picked up the mail and Planned Parenthood said, 'You have to have this or the world will end' and the right-to-life people were there and they said, 'If you do this there will be a moral judgment on you.' And James Watt was on one side and the conservationists were there and there was no way to go.

"Whichever way you turned, you were damned. And the dog came to the door and was barking and there was an old green Cadillac, and I don't know, it looked like maybe the guy who sells water softener or bottled gas or something. So I went out and anyway, it was the Jehovah's Witness and he'd come over from Luray on the other side of the mountains where they were doing missionary work here in Rappahannock County and could he talk to me? And I said yes.

"And he was giving me Armageddon, and I said, 'This is the best news I've had all day.' I said, 'This is really good news. I was in distress here. I didn't know which way to turn.' I said, 'This could be a way out.' I felt a little ashamed because he was taking me straight."

People tend to do that in Rappahannock County, where, McCarthy told Joan Rivers, "they get down to realities."

"He fits in real well to this rural scene out here," says Dennis Fairbrother, a neighbor who is a copilot for United Airlines. "He gets a lot of pleasure out of going down to the general store on Sunday mornings and listening to all the hunting stories and dog stories. He and I usually take a walk down the stream and see what the beavers are doing down in the back of Hawthorne Farm here."

At 71, McCarthy bends a bit slowly and his step is not particularly quick. But his is still an impressive presence. At 6 foot 4, he conveys an impression of strength and moves with the assurance of the semipro ballplayer he once was. He suffered a heart attack in September 1983, but it "doesn't seem to be much of a factor," he says, adding: "It makes a little bit of a difference. I don't go walking alone on the mountain anymore, which I used to."

For the county newspaper McCarthy writes folksy columns, some of which were collected in 1984 in "The View From Rappahannock." His subjects are the skunk that plagued columnist James J. Kilpatrick, "An Endangered Species: The Rural Mailbox" and "Merkle Miracle," a tale of the fancy mushrooms.

All this bucolic bliss has stirred talk of a "new" McCarthy. "Rappahannock's" publicist wrote, "Gene McCarthy has mellowed . . . his caustic years in politics are behind him. He's become reflective; a countryman writing in the gentle tradition of Thoreau and E.B. White." This is nice, but not exactly accurate (of Thoreau either).

Gene McCarthy still keeps score. He still nurses old grudges. "I live more or less by my frustrations," he wrote in 1984. As always, he defines himself in opposition.

His list of opponents is long and illustrious, headed by Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy and Warren Burger. In "Up 'Til Now" he is interested in showing that he was their moral superior and that he suffered because of it.

When told that the book gives the impression that Hubert Humphrey is the only old foe for whom he had any respect, McCarthy answers, "I think that's right."

The principal other in this circle of rejection has been the Democratic Party. Many of McCarthy's post-'68 activities seem aimed at distancing himself from the party whose soul he almost won.

"I think he has a rejection wish," says Maurice Rosenblatt, a liberal lobbyist who has been a friend for more than 20 years. "He wants to reject others and be rejected by them."

In 1976 he ran a third-party presidential campaign, siphoning votes from Jimmy Carter -- the difference between Carter and Ford was infinitesimal, he said. In 1980, he endorsed Ronald Reagan. Walter Mondale, he said in 1984, had "the soul of a vice president."

All of which has not endeared him to people like Richard Goodwin, who helped run his 1968 campaign and now says, "He's trivialized himself." Or Arthur Naftilan, former mayor of Minneapolis and aide to Hubert Humphrey, who says, "McCarthy is kind of the living embodiment of a loose cannon."

That would seem to bother McCarthy not at all. "Most everybody is kind of without a party now," he says. "McGovern is without a party and I suppose Jimmy Carter is without a party and Mondale's without a party. The Democrats are a strange concoction. I went to hear {party chairman Paul} Kirk speak but there was no substance to it. It was all process. I suppose that whoever gets the nomination will try to say, 'I am the party.'

"I guess I was without a party, after '68, probably earlier than others."

Everything has to do with 1968. Even the interviews on his recent book tour have had more to do with his old crusade than his new ideas.

"Usually they are people who were involved in '68 and it's sort of like visiting the troops," he says. "They talk about the book, but in many cases they really want to talk about what they did in '68."

If we could only make the bodies smaller

We could fit

A body into a finger-ring, for a keepsake forever.

-- From "Counting Small-Boned Bodies," by Robert Bly

About 1968 there is this to know: That Eugene McCarthy was nobody's first choice for president. That he picked up a flag no one else, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern included, had the courage to carry. That the Johnson campaign originally thought he'd bring out proadministration voters who otherwise might have stayed home. "If McCarthy did poorly," remembers Seymour Hersh, McCarthy's first press secretary of the campaign, "we thought that that would kill the antiwar movement."

But when the word went out, thousands of college students flocked into New Hampshire. They were shaven, relatively short-haired, neatly dressed and "Clean for Gene." In late January, news of the Tet offensive shook national confidence in the war. In New England, McCarthy's slowly growing support shook the Johnson administration.

People began remembering his past crusades. Wasn't he the founder of McCarthy's mavericks, the group of liberal congressmen whose early position papers led to the foundation of the Democratic Study Group? Wasn't he the one who dared take on Joe McCarthy in a televised debate in 1952? Hadn't he nominated Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 convention, despite the fact that John F. Kennedy had the numbers on his side?

On March 12 McCarthy, who was on the New Hampshire ballot, finished 230 votes behind Johnson, who was not. But the narrow loss was interpreted as a spectacular triumph, particularly because 20 of the 24 delegates elected were pledged to McCarthy. The morning after, he predicted victory. "I think I can get the nomination," he said. "I'm ahead now." The near victory had made his myth. Suddenly he was a latter-day Galahad. One man with courage making a majority, that sort of thing. Within three days, Kennedy entered the campaign. By the end of the month, Johnson withdrew.

In retrospect, McCarthy sees his moment of glory as incredibly brief.

"If Bobby hadn't come in, we knew we were going to win Wisconsin, so we had a feeling we could probably win most of the major primaries, and if we did that, we could be in a position to significantly influence the position of the party, but that was until Bobby announced," he says. "We had about two days to maybe even reflect on the possibility of controlling the convention. And that was it."

The campaign deteriorated into a clash of personalities between two candidates with similar stands on the issues. Yet some of the damage done to McCarthy's campaign was self-inflicted. Even true believers, the people with the FMBNH (For McCarthy Before New Hampshire) buttons, were having their doubts. "Every two weeks or so McCarthy would do, or not do, something which again brought into question his suitability for the presidency," wrote Ben Stavis in his 1969 book, "We Were the Campaign."

Supporters were angry about McCarthy's erratic campaigning and the time he spent reading poetry and talking with Robert Lowell, then perhaps America's premier living poet.

"People don't take into account the permanent quality of the relationship," McCarthy says. "Lowell . . . was an interesting person to have around, especially for relief.

"He would have showed even if you didn't want him around and you didn't know what to do with him. Whether it's the Columbia riots or the March on the Pentagon, Robert was there. I know people who would say, 'Oh, Lowell's here again. Can't they keep him away?' "

Supporters felt that others important to McCarthy's quest were being kept away -- the press, for example.

"This one night, I was talking to Lowell and {New York Times columnist James} Reston called saying, 'I'm in the hotel and want to see you,' and we said, 'Well, good for you,' " McCarthy remembers. "I think it was in Oregon somewhere. I wasn't against seeing Reston, excepting that it was really kind of a matter of principle not to have these people who were inside."

McCarthy recognized his tendency to be somewhat aloof from the business of campaigning. He knew some supporters doubted his desire to be president. In his poem, "Lament of an Aging Politician," he wrote:

I have left Act I, for involution

And Act II. There, mired in complexity

I cannot write Act III.

The campaign struggled through defeats in Indiana and Nebraska, but was revived by a victory in Oregon. Then, after his narrow victory in California, Kennedy was shot and the numbers became irrelevant.

"And all I can remember saying, when my wife and daughters and I heard the news, is, 'Maybe we should do it a different way; maybe we should have the English system of having the Cabinet choose the president,' " McCarthy wrote in his campaign memoir, "The Year of the People." "There must be some other way."

Maurice Rosenblatt remembers a phone call he got from McCarthy several weeks after Robert Kennedy was murdered. "He said, 'Let's go out to the shore.'

"He drove his own car. We were sitting at the shore at the pool of Francis Scott Key's place just dangling our feet in the pool and the Secret Service men were hiding in the bushes. He said, 'What do you think I should do?'

"I said, 'We have the money. You should go on national television and call for an open convention. You can call for Humphrey to withdraw because the administration ticket has been rejected.

"He wasn't responsive. It wasn't the sound he wanted to hear. I could tell he wasn't thinking in terms of a run."

Martin Peretz, now editor in chief of The New Republic and one of McCarthy's first financial backers, says the assassination transformed McCarthy: "There was self-reproach in that he had participated in making the campaign so vulnerable to rancorous currents {that} in some metaphoric way he was responsible for contributing to the atmosphere in which Bobby was killed."

McCarthy views it more coolly now. "There was that period from June to August where the people pretended there wasn't any politics in the country and they {Humphrey's people} were just consolidating the delegates and we were trying to break into it, but couldn't," he says.

That left McCarthy with an extremely painful choice between the New Politics and an old friend. He had grown up with Humphrey in Minnesota politics. He'd spent much of his career as the slightly less favored son. A certain rivalry developed between the two in 1964, when Johnson tabbed both men as potential running mates, but when LBJ picked Humphrey, McCarthy swallowed his pride and gave the nominating speech. That breach healed.

This one didn't. And although Humphrey strengthened his antiwar stance late in the campaign, McCarthy still wasn't comfortable with it. His endorsement was tepid and tardy -- just a week before the election.

"Our position was that the only hope we had was to keep kind of a counterpressure on, which was nothing much more than withholding the endorsement," McCarthy says. "I think at that point, if I had gone over to Humphrey at the convention, I think there would have been protests and not just in Chicago. The radical people who were against the campaign anyway would have said, 'Look, we told you that this was going to happen. He betrayed you. The day after he's up on the platform waving to the crowd.' "

He had become a captive of the movement he led.

"You're a captive of the people on two counts," he says. "One, those who've made a real commitment to your campaign and people took personal chances, not just political, you know, but father against son and jobs and everything else and you had to, I think, respect their position. Plus they were idealistic, a lot of them. They were true believers and they thought the war was the worst of all possible things and there was no compromise with it."

But he bristles at critics from the left who say that his endorsement amounted to a sellout.

"The only thing one might have done would have been to make a third-party challenge after Chicago," he says. "I don't think I could have won, but we could have perpetuated the cause for another six months and assured the election of Nixon. That would certainly have done it."

Instead McCarthy spent 10 days on the Riviera and covered the World Series for Life magazine. Humphrey was grieved to the end of his life by what he regarded as McCarthy's desertion. "Had McCarthy campaigned early and hard for me and the Democratic Party, he might have turned it," he wrote in his autobiography.

Humphrey lost the presidency, but McCarthy lost something too. He was an outcast in the party and something of an outcast in his home state. Within a year, the stress of the campaign and its aftermath began to take a toll.

In 1969 McCarthy gave up his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, knowing it would be inherited by Gale McGee, a Wyoming Democrat and a hawk. He also reaffirmed his decision to leave the Senate when his term expired in 1970.

Some friends feel that Gene McCarthy was a victim of the war in Vietnam before the phrase had entered the language. Miles Lord says, "What he found was that he was so right, people couldn't forgive him. He has never been thanked for it."

McCarthy confronted the great what's next without Abigail, his wife of 24 years. The couple separated in August 1969, but never divorced.

Friends say they grew apart during the campaign as McCarthy enjoyed his celebrity. Larry Merthan, McCarthy's lawyer and first legislative aide, says McCarthy became impatient with his wife's perfectionism. "He'd come into the office with a list in the morning, 'Call Jesse Unruh to wish him Happy Birthday.' His whole day was mapped out and he got tired of it. Mind you, she was a good politician," he says.

Abigail McCarthy, now a novelist and columnist for Commonweal magazine, was deeply upset at first, but that view has been tempered by time.

"I wouldn't have chosen to get separated myself," she said later. "But I can certainly see how it's liberated me. That I've grown and become free in a way I never was before. But -- but I'm not recommending it."

The McCarthys have remained friends and see each other on holidays; the former senator signed his Senate pension over to his wife. "I've come to think of Gene as a relative," she says.

She is quick to defend his place in recent history. Like many of his supporters she suggests that he was too fine an instrument for these times.

"I think that the essential thing about Gene is that he's a private person and in an all-confessional age that's considered almost treachery."

Many students of McCarthy's career remark on this sense of privacy, a contemplative quality that suggests he is in the world but not of it. ("He confesses to his confessor, not to the Barbara Walterses," Peretz says.)

McCarthy was educated at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., a Benedictine school, and spent nine months in a Benedictine seminary studying to be a monk. "Through college and a year's novitiate thereafter Benedictine pride in rules, in scholastic superiority, in aloofness from things modern, industrial and 'American' shaped McCarthy's outlook," wrote Humphrey's biographer Carl Solberg.

McCarthy's spirituality impressed former Senate staff member Louise Fitz Simons, who thinks the key to his Christian existentialism may lie in the poem "An Irish Airman Meets His Death" by William Butler Yeats, a poem McCarthy used in speeches during the 1968 campaign.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds

The catch is that McCarthy loves cheering crowds.

"He loves an audience," says Merthan, who may be his best friend. "He does get out to political, social and sometimes effete functions around the country, those things out in the Hamptons with the quasi-semi socialites," Merthan says. "He makes the scene, but small 's.' "

"He likes to take over in a group," Rosenblatt says. "He rehearses his lines. He's got a spontaneous wit. He's almost a professional wit. You can't say whether he suffers fools or not because he doesn't give other people a chance."

That has produced a certain ambivalence among people who know him .

"I'm still trying to figure out after 20 years if I liked Gene McCarthy," says Marylouise Oates, a Los Angeles Times columnist who was his deputy press secretary during the early stages of the '68 campaign.

Theodore White wrote: "All through the years one's admiration for the man grew -- and one's affections lessened."

Wooden churches and courthouses

burned down in the last century.

Birth certificates and baptismal records

gone up in smoke

Only you remain to say

who lived and who died.

Did Jake Powers live in 1880?

Not unless you liked him, you say.

-- A fragment of a poem by McCarthy, about his father Gene McCarthy's father lived to be almost 100; he was the sole surviving authority on his region's history. The son covets that luxury, but his was a national stage, and there are too many survivors. He is only one voice in the discordant chorus. However on the subject of 1968, he speaks with more authority than most, perhaps because he has more at stake.

"A lot of people I talk to say, 'This was the high period of my life.' Especially young people," he says. "They say, 'We were in despair,' and when they say that, you say, 'Well, maybe this is more significant than it seemed at the time when we were fighting the day-to-day battle with the administration."

Few question Gene McCarthy's bravery or that he made a difference in the way Americans viewed their least popular war. But his supporters hoped for something more than a one-trick prophet, and at times he seemed capable of delivering. Leadership and the celebrity that accompanies it seemed to attract as well as repel him.

"Gene is a great man manque'," Rosenblatt says. "Gene is a great man who missed, or maybe he missed being a great man."

That is not a universally accepted view. "I think the times have changed more than he has," says Evelyn Metzger, his friend and sometimes publisher. "He lives his morals."

And continues to have his say.

"When he went to Virginia, he took all his files and put them in the attic. I said, 'Don't do it,' " his daughter Ellen remembers. " 'Your father lived to be 98 without the wonders of modern medicine. You'll probably be 120 and I'll be 96 having to climb those stairs to go through those files.' "

McCarthy is currently at work on two "tracts" that may become books. A thesis on unemployment has been in the works for more than a year. The second develops an idea first voiced in "Up 'Til Now," that the United States has become "a colony of the world" and is no longer in control of its own future.

When the next books appear they will be reviewed as much as artifacts as books, as much for clues to the real Gene McCarthy as solutions to the problem he addresses. They will be reviewed as though they have something to do with 1968, a year that at once elevates and obscures him, a year with which neither he nor his adversaries have made any kind of peace.