For the last several years of his life, Eugene McCarthy lived quietly at the Georgetown Retirement Residence, an aging warrior who had not yet surrendered. He could be found in Apartment 112, which is down a hallway and past the beauty parlor where the ladies love to get their hair done.
He liked to say, "I don't do much." But anyone who was still reading Homer and writing books and commenting on public affairs and occasionally speechifying well into his eighties had to be doing a little more than not much.
McCarthy died Saturday at age 89 in the same assisted living facility where I visited him at age 86. He had become, in a sense, just another senior citizen with access to the Georgetown's chauffeured transportation, its 24-hour nurses, its concierge for personal shopping excursions. But let's not kid ourselves: There was no senior citizen like Gene McCarthy, whose 1968 presidential campaign whipped up opposition to the Vietnam War and forced Lyndon Johnson to abandon any notion of another White House term.
The McCarthy I interviewed three years ago, as the war in Iraq loomed, was not a man who had yet succumbed to Parkinson's disease. He managed to look stylish, even in gray sweat pants and brown loafers. He was charming and witty and sage -- and especially sharp with the tongue. "The Department of Homeland Security? Well, I think it's ridiculous," he volunteered. "We've got about 10 levels of security already in the government. They're starting to investigate each other."
He kept a typewriter in his kitchen and tapped out articles -- bunches of them -- which he double-spaced and titled himself. Stuff like "The Need for an Established Church" and "Ambassadors -- Not Abroad." He handed me one, which I confess was a bit of a struggle to comprehend. McCarthy didn't let me struggle long. With a comic's timing, he quickly interjected: "Most of the things I write are kind of like that -- ludicrous, but with some pertinence."
Though McCarthy served in Congress for 22 years, he was never the easiest political figure to sort out. He was a crusader, an insurgent, a liberal and even a conservative on some things. Not to mention a philosopher-poet. He ran for president five times and supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election -- anybody, he surmised, was better than his fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter.
In the introduction to McCarthy's 1998 book "No-Fault Politics," editor Keith C. Burris explained him as "a rebel and something of an apostate within the Democratic Party: a Catholic committed to social justice but a skeptic about reform, about do-gooders, about the power of the state and the competence of government, and about the liberal reliance upon material cures for social problems. One might call him the first neoliberal."
But Burris concluded that he was "really something more complicated: a liberal Catholic and a conservative human being."
Another writer, British historian Dominic Sandbrook, had a less flattering take on McCarthy's career. In his 2004 book, "Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism," Sandbrook wrote that McCarthy had "willfully courted the reputation of frivolous maverick." The critique angered and hurt McCarthy in the sunset of his life. He had never tried to take himself too seriously. "Being in politics," he once said, "is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important."
When I saw him that day in Apartment 112, the phone rang several times.
"I just make rash judgments as people call me up," he explained. "You want a rash judgment?"
Sure, why not?
"We're kind of in a governmental crisis," McCarthy said. "There's no real difference between the two parties, other than on irrelevant issues."
He already was envisioning America going to war, and the war going badly. There was no significant opposition to stop it. The country badly needed a viable third party, he said. But he didn't see that happening. He couldn't refrain from griping about Democratic failures, for they so frustrated him. Take the 2000 presidential election:
"This thing in Florida was scandalous, absolutely scandalous," he said. "And the Democrats didn't seem too upset with it. They just kind of let it pass."
He was right about some things, as it turns out. Public approval for the president would fall, he predicted. A president who would take the country to war with what McCarthy saw as a flimsy rationale would never be able to hold onto his standing. "I think the support for Bush is very tenuous," he said.
I saw McCarthy again when he turned 88, at a birthday party old friends threw for him at Teatro Goldoni on K Street. He was moving a little slower by then. The Democrats were starting to make some noise about the war, though not enough for him. Tom Daschle, then the Senate minority leader, gave one of the toasts. "When you hear someone question the reasons and the costs of war, you hear his voice," Daschle said.
When it was finally his turn to speak, McCarthy recalled a poem he wrote, "Courage After 60." He joked that he had later "changed it to 70. Now, I guess I'll change it to 88."
Too many politicians these days are afraid to say anything without sticking their finger in the wind. And many of those who do a lot of talking often have nothing of consequence to say. However you want to define Gene McCarthy's career, he was different. He usually had something to say. And it often was worth hearing.