McCarthy: Making the System Work

The New Leader, December 18, 1967

BOBBY KENNEDY wants to be President so badly you can practically see him saliva­ting,” one ubiquitous observer here noted re­cently.  Yet Senator Eugene Mc­Carthy (D-Minn.), who does not particularly want to assume the burdens of world leadership, is the man seeking the nomination while Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) continues to promise party loyalty.  The White House has solved the anomaly by describing McCarthy as a stalking horse for Bobby.  More objective investigators, however, can find no evidence that this is so.  What, then, is going on?


Eugene McCarthy

The answer is not an easy one, and it lies deeper than the motives and acts of McCarthy, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.  America is enter­ing one of the strangest and most ominous political seasons it has en­dured in decades.  At home, the goal of a bi-racial society has become in­creasingly elusive as ghettos rise in flame, white resistance hardens, and the government seems incapable of doing anything about it.  Overseas, America appears to be dissipating its energies and world standing in an Asian war of attrition that the Ad­ministra­tion can neither fight nor talk its way out of.

Thirty-five years of liberalism in Washington have made the nation prosperous but left it more psycho­logically ill at ease than perhaps ever before.  Intellectuals and labor unions—the soul and muscle of the Democratic coalition put together by Franklin D. Roosevelt—no longer talk the same language, see the same problems, or share the same objec­tives.

If ours were a parliamentary sys­tem of government, the option to change leaders and policies —with­out changing parties—could be played on any given weekday.  But under the Ameri­can rules of the game, all the stresses and strains of our vast society, all the hopes and frustra­tions of the powerless and powerful, are focused and concen­trated, as if by a lens, upon a single orgasmic point in time: an electoral consultation which comes, rain or shine, for no particular reason, in November of every leap year.

For Republicans, as the forthcom­ing leap year approaches, the course of action is clear; only the spear-carrier is in doubt.  For Democrats, whose very survival as a majority party is at stake, the course itself is a painful dilemma.  Lyndon Johnson is presiding, wittingly or not, over the unraveling not only of American so­ciety but also of the Democratic party, and would like to remain in office for four more years.  Many Democrats who support his re-elec­tion feel that it is the least of several evils, that there is no realistic Democratic alternative under the circum­stances.

Bobby Kennedy, with mixed feel­ings, agrees.  People who are now backing McCarthy visited Kennedy at Hickory Hill in September and asked him to run against Johnson.  He turned them down.  He does want to be President, but 1968 is not his year.  Johnson, he believes, probably cannot be denied the Democratic nomination.  If he, Bobby, sought to do so, moreover, it would split the party and assure Republican victory.  If, on the other hand, he sits tight till 1972, he will have the White House on a platter—particularly if Johnson is re-elected and there is no Republican incumbent.

Kennedy is not merely a power-seeking political animal.  He feels the malaise of the country, especial­ly of the younger generation.  He (or rather his staff) has written a new book and the ads for it proclaim, “Senator Kennedy is prepared to dare.”  He must be wondering, as many of his fans are, if he would rate a chapter in Profiles in Courage.  So Bobby steps back from endorsing Johnson, calls McCarthy’s candidacy “healthy,” and escalates his criticism of the war.  But his de­cision to wait for 1972 is seemingly irrevocable.  No matter how well McCarthy does in the primaries, Bobby would emerge as a candidate only if Johnson’s heart stopped beat­ing, or if the serenity of the Peder­nales unexpectedly lured the Presi­dent from the Potomac.

McCarthy’s political and moral calculations are markedly different.  His own Vice-Presi­den­tial ambitions were thwarted in 1960 and 1964, there is no manna waiting for him in 1972, and he is not up for re­election in Minnesota until 1970.  If the prospect of personal gain in challenging Johnson in 1968 is re­mote, neither is there much to be lost.

With personal political considera­tions thus neutralized, other factors come into play.  McCarthy is one of the most complicated men in the Senate.  Almost every adjective in the dictionary can be applied to him—all with validity.  He is witty, articu­late, urbane; cynical, detached, lazy; ambitious, vain, yet modest; scholar­ly, athletic, Catholic and catholic; moody, vengeful, compassionate; principled and unprincipled, easy­going and impulsive.  He spent sev­eral months in a Benedictine novi­tiate and there is much of the mystic about him.  He is a loner.

Unlike Kennedy, he does not need or want great quantities of brainy advisers telling him what to say and do.  He writes his own material, makes his own decisions, and bases his moves not on Harris polls or the skilled political prescriptions of a bevy of Larry O’Briens, but on a strong, canny private intuition.  “I don’t know where he gets his signals from,” says a close associate, “but they’re usually right.”

There is no single motive that makes a man run for President of the United States, and the candidacy of the complex McCarthy was prompted by many motives, some less noble than others.  But upper­most in McCarthy’s mind for some time now have been two deep, com­pelling concerns.  One has been his growing distress over what he sees as the Administra­tion’s apparent ob­session with imposing order upon the world through the open-ended application of military force—a fixa­tion, McCarthy feels, which is erod­ing our stature abroad and distracting us from more important missions at home.

The other, and perhaps more vital concern derives from McCarthy’s frequent visits to college campuses and discussions with his eldest daughters.  These have given him a keen apprecia­tion for the depth of the alienation that pervades Ameri­can youth today.  Failure to use the democratic processes and show them to be effective, he believes, will result in a whole generation going sour on two-party politics and turning to extra-legal actions or, equally tragi­cally, to massive apathy and cyni­cism.

McCARTHY IS NOT a party wrecker, but he chafes at Johnson’s frantic appeals for parti­san and patriotic unity.  Seven years ago McCarthy wrote: “It is gen­erally accepted that there are two conditions under which obedience to the government may be withheld.  First, in the event that the state has extended its authority into fields of life which do not properly belong to it: if, for example, it usurps the au­thority of the family, or religion, or if it trespasses on areas reserved for individual and personal decision and choice; and second, when the gov­ernment, acting in its proper sphere, orders actions which are wrong and contrary to right reason, an extreme example of which would be either an unjust war or an unnecessary one.”

He added a footnote in a 1966 lecture at Harvard on religious be­lief and political action: “Politicians in the United States have not had to make the hard and difficult choices required of Socrates and of Thomas More.  We freely acknowl­edge that there are limitations to man’s obligation in obedience and service to the state, and hold that not everything done in the name of the state is justifiable.”  For McCarthy, the 1968 electoral consultation is the only meaningful, timely oppor­tunity to do what Socrates and More—one of his political heroes—could not do: raise the flag of lawful re­bellion.

The forthcoming campaign for the Democratic nomination promises to be an exciting one.  It is also fraught with dangers: Should McCarthy make a very poor showing, Johnson will be under pressure to escalate the war, and his domestic opponents will probably be driven to extreme forms of protest.

How well is McCarthy likely to do?  A lot depends on how he plays it.  There is a vast reservoir of anti-Johnson sentiment waiting to be tapped, sentiment based not solely on the war but on Johnson’s personal­ity, his tax bill and farm policy, his political drag on other Democratic candidates, his inability to inspire and lead in a time of national crisis.  If McCarthy gets labeled as the “peace candidate,” he is doomed, for the day-to-day image of John­son’s desire for peace, as Glassboro showed, can be manipulated with great ease from the White House.

So McCarthy plans to broaden the base of his attack, and to cam­paign with some ardor in the pri­maries.  He will have to.  Already there is grumbling in the ranks that he is not the man to galvanize the masses, that he looks more the mar­tyr than the triumphant crusader.  After his dispirited speech to the Conference of Concerned Democrats in Chicago, one delegate turned to a companion and wryly remarked, “In your mind, you know he’s right.”  When McCarthy visited the Massa­chusetts caucus at the Chicago con­ference, a worried Bay State politi­cian asked: “Gene, are you ready to ht the bricks?”  To which the lanky Minneso­tan quietly responded, as he does to other doubters these days, “I’ve been down Main Street many, many times.”

It would be ironic if the ultimate beneficiary of McCarthy’s efforts turned out to be the man who stayed at home, New York’s Senator Ken­nedy, for there is little love lost be­tween the two men.  McCarthy hoped to be the first Catholic Vice President in 1960 and saw his aspirations dashed by John Kennedy.  Since then McCarthy has rarely spoken to Bobby, and his decision to plunge into the Massachusetts primary against the Kennedys’ wishes should lay to rest any lingering notions of a conspiracy.

Yet even if McCarthy scores well in the primaries, if reputedly hawk­ish Massachusetts becomes the West Virginia of 1968, if McCarthy also picks up additional delegates at state conventions and succeeds in con­vincing the Democratic power brok­ers that Lyndon John­son is a loser, he will still be a long way from per­suading the party that he, Gene McCarthy, is a winner.  No—this drama may well require a deus ex machina, a clean, unbloodied face who can descend at the Chicago convention with enough stature to pull the party together, lick the GOP and carry lower-level Democratic candidates into office on his coat­tails.  Only one Democrat appears to fit that bill: the reluctant Robert F. Kennedy.

This article was written under the pen name Peter Abraham, due to the fact that, at the time, Newsweek (where I worked) prohibited its employees from free-lancing.  Abraham was the surname of my father’s step-father and his own surname at birth.  I later got a leave of absence from Newsweek to work on McCarthy’s campaign.