Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2005 / 14 Kislev, 5766
They were two definitely not of a kind. About the only thing they might have shared was an obituary page last Sunday, for both had died the day before. That's where any resemblance between them seemed to end.
One died at 89 after a long, distinguished but ultimately unsatisfying public career. He ran for president five times. It stopped mattering after a while.
The other died at 65, after a harrowing life of pain and exhilaration mixed. He never ran for public office, yet wielded extraordinary public influence. Whether appearing on stage, screen, in the news or just in the American mind, his presence riveted people, maybe even changed some minds, and always left his audience wanting more.
The politician seemed to fade away even at his most prominent, for though he had a talent for raising issues, he seemed more interested in analyzing politics than shaping it. Even when he was a frontrunner for the briefest of moments, he had the air of an also-ran. At his most engaging, there was something disengaged about him. Long before he became a prominent politician, he'd entered a entered a monastery for nine months and considered becoming a Benedictine monk.
The entertainer, raised in a brothel and named after pimps, would fight his way to the top, always battling his demons. His exorcisms of them on stage were our education.
The politician was so clean, so transparent, that after a while he might as well have been invisible. He didn't seem to be there even when he was there. Even in death, he had to share top billing on the obituary pages with the other man, who even after his death, seems still very much with us. Not just on celluloid but in our mind's eye.
The politician was so diffident he could talk baseball, politics and poetry without leaving a mark on any of them, or on the listener. He did leave his steadily dwindling audience with the vague impression that something wise and important had been said, but just what wasn't easy to pin down.
The other man had a limited education, at least in the formal sense, yet he cut through people's defenses, assumptions, pieties and prejudices like a switchblade through a lace doily. He could make us cringe, smile, laugh, groan, take offense and come to some kind of acceptance of ourselves and others all within minutes; no wonder he never seemed on stage long enough.
One man seemed forever coy; the other was never anything but transparent, not to say outrageous. The difference between the two was not just between critic and artist, but between delicate critic and rare artist.
One left things pretty much in their place after he was done; the other left everything in disarray yet clarified.
One was the well-bred insider so conventional he left us dispirited. The other was a hopeless outsider who, strangely enough, by the time he walked off the stage, had filled the rest of us with hope and good will, as if he had zoomed through a sound barrier that had kept us from talking plain to each other.
One was always the dignified gentleman, the other presented a whole range of human faults on disarming display.
One never embarrassed us while the other made a career of it. One was so well-balanced he never said anything striking; the other was so unbalanced he regularly struck the truth like a nerve.
One would have passed any psychological exam with no difficulty; the other would have used it as grist for his act, which may be the best use for some psychological exams.
One faded into the background while the other could never be confined there. You couldn't imagine the distinguished statesman being vulgar, let alone profane; the other was seldom anything but. To appreciate his performance was something of a trick, like understanding what your drill sergeant was shouting at you. Only after you'd cleared away the colorful clatter might you realize the information was valuable, even vital.
One left us duly respectful but unmoved. With the other, we didn't know whether to laugh or cry at his depiction of the human comedy/tragedy, so we compromised and laughed till we cried.
One was Eugene J. McCarthy, one-time U.S. senator from Minnesota who almost seemed to matter for a moment during the strange, sad, just plain awful year 1968 that, appropriately enough, would end with the election of strange, sad, just plain awful Richard Nixon as president of the United States.
Gene McCarthy was Richard Nixon's opposite, Bobby Kennedy's stalking horse, Lyndon Johnson's last straw . . . the middle-class, white-collar, decent, respectable American liberal overwhelmed by it all and maybe even realizing it. He was ineffectual, but he was always nice about it, which could have been why he stood out momentarily in a decade of bad form.
Not that Clean Gene didn't have his moments. Two of them, to be exact:
One came in 1968, when he shook up a sitting president in the New Hampshire primary by expressing the dissatisfaction all shared but no other leader of his party would voice.
The other came in 1980, a low ebb in American confidence when malaise covered the land like kudzu. That's when Gene McCarthy outraged the few supporters he had left by endorsing the other party's presidential candidate (Ronald Reagan), arguing that no president could be as bad as the one we had at the time (Jimmy Carter). A perceptive point, and one that took courage to make. It meant cutting his last, frayed ties with his party. But he remained consistent: as decent and candid as he was impractical.
The other American was Richard Pryor, the comic who, like all great comics, was more than a comic. Just what isn't easy to say. Social Critic may come close but doesn't quite cover it; neither does entertainer or conversationalist, though he was certainly both of those. Vulgarity, it turned out, was only his medium, not his message. He kept nothing back, which may explain why he was such a moving human force.
The sheer variety of human types that go under the general heading of American never ceases to amaze, and these were just two. Hey, what a country.
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