Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2005/ 14 Kislev 5766


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The other McCarthy: Sort of clean for Gene | Senator Eugene McCarthy, who died last Saturday at the age of 89, was, except for a few brief months in 1968, considered an eccentric at best, a pariah at worst, by his fellow Democrats. He was consigned to the same cage as Jerry Brown, absent the California costume changes. I didn’t agree with McCarthy on numerous issues as the decades piled on, even though he endorsed Ronald Reagan over the detestable Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he was certainly one of the five most fascinating politicians of the past 40 years. (Lest you youngsters forget, Neil Young was also, for a brief period, a Reagan booster in the ’80s.)

Like many teenagers in ’68, I was rooting for McCarthy in the still boss-controlled Democratic presidential nomination process, and it was his candidacy that led me to quit the Boy Scouts that year. At a Troop 12 meeting in Huntington one May evening, I defiled the uniform by wearing one of those cool blue and white McCarthy campaign buttons, and received a severe tongue-lashing from the idiotic Eagle Scout who presided over the inspection of the ranks. My affiliation with the Boy Scouts during the late ’60s, didn’t exactly raise my hippie cred factor at school, but my four brothers had all been members and it was considered a suitable extracurricular activity for future college applications.

But after that incident, I said to hell with the Scouts, Baden-Powell, “Be Prepared,” and overnight hikes in the Catskills. Within my circle of acquaintances at junior high school, you were either for McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy, with no room to “agree to disagree.”

I was disgusted at Kennedy’s entrance into the race just days after McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, a stunning event that led LBJ to quit politics, and while RFK’s assassination that June was tragic  —  if not for the nation, certainly his wife and children  —  it led to all sorts of revisionism about the Sophocles-spouting senator. Lost in all the hagiography of Kennedy mingling with the underprivileged and fruit-pickers in California was his splintering the anti-war movement’s momentum by cynically challenging McCarthy after he’d promised to stay on the sidelines. In retrospect, a better choice would’ve been to wait till 1972 or ‘76  —  he might still be alive  —  but Kennedy, displaying the dirty, money-fueled politics of his family, just couldn’t resist.

Small wonder that McCarthy remained bitter about the ’68 campaign for the rest of his life.

Martin Nolan, a onetime Boston Globe Washington correspondent, had a splendid anecdote about McCarthy in his former paper this past Monday. He wrote: “Bobby Kennedy even doubted [McCarthy’s] Irishness. Fixing me with his blue eyes, he earnestly told me, ‘Gene’s not all Irish, you know.’ ‘You’re kidding, Senator,’ I protested. ‘You sound like a guy from South Boston smearing an opponent who might be Lithuanian or Canadian.’ ‘I’m serious,” RFK said. ‘Gene’s mother was German. That’s why he’s so mean.’ ‘What’s your excuse?’ I asked. Kennedy blushed with embarrassment.”

As it happened, I spent a couple of hours with McCarthy as a college reporter in the fall of 1975. He’d just given a standard speech at Johns Hopkins  —  making the university tour ahead of his quixotic ’76 presidential campaign  —  and later at his hotel I was able, after a manipulative question about Yeats, to pique his interest and settle down with a few cocktails. He offered several subtle yet devastating anecdotes about Hubert Humphrey  —  the polar opposite of Hunter Thompson’s frequent burn-him-at-the-stake appraisals of Johnson’s veep  —  and then McCarthy, bored talking politics, spent the remainder of our time analyzing, game by game, the epic ’75 World Series.

I’ve interviewed many offbeat politicians  —  Fred Harris, Bill Weld, Jerry Brown and Ed Koch come to mind  —  but McCarthy was far and away the most eclectic, intellectual and fun. It’s testament to the short shrift he’s received from journalists and historians that last Sunday his obituary was placed below that of comedian Richard Pryor by several major dailies.

One of those dailies, The Baltimore Sun, took advantage of McCarthy’s death to moralize about the Iraq war. In a loopy Dec. 12 editorial, this was the conclusion: “The war in Vietnam dragged on, but after 1968 its unpopularity, though unprecedented, was a given. Today America is fighting another war of uncertain purpose. The loss of life and the loss of material goods in Iraq are not so costly as in Vietnam days, as painful as they are. But the loss of what Senator McCarthy called moral integrity and moral energy is if anything worse now than it was in 1968, and the eventual cost is incalculable. America awaits its McCarthy moment.”

I’ve no idea who would represent that “McCarthy moment,” perhaps Sen. Russell Feingold, but The Sun is correct on one score. A hasty exit from Iraq could lead to more murderous attacks on American and Israeli soil, and those costs, would indeed, be “incalculable.”

No matter how dispiriting, and superfluous, the contents of Time become, each year my second oldest brother and I make a gentleman’s bet on who the editors will pick as “Person of the Year.” In a non-presidential year without a single defining event, the choice is up for grabs, and the gossip columns and websites have predicted, probably accurately, that “Mother Nature” will grace the final Time cover of 2005. You know, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods, as if they were all invented in the past 12 months.

I’d like to see Howard Dean’s mug on the mag. What other individual has done as much harm to the Democratic Party’s longshot chances to take over both the House and Senate in the midterm elections next year? Maybe Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid would make a convincing runner-up, but it’s Dean who ought to get fired immediately if the party wants Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s pragmatic work on behalf of House candidates to bear any fruit. And what a visual could be used: In the current GOP web attack ad against the “white flag” Dems, there’s a shot of Dean (showcased for two days on Drudge last week) looking like a twin of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Hey, it could be great synergy (bringing a word out of the mothballs), if Time chooses George Clooney’s utterly confusing and muddled film Good Night, and Good Luck as a 2005 cultural watershed.

There is, of course, a very justified choice the Time editors could make if they wanted to erase the past 25 years and remain true to Henry Luce’s original vision for the gimmick. Immigrants, illegal or otherwise, made the most news and promise to be as contentious an issue next year as the Iraq War. When Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan goes Nativist (Dec. 8), nearly joining the Minutemen and signing up to work for Pat Buchanan and Tom Tancredo, in complete contradiction of that paper’s staunch pro-immigration editorial views, that’s an indication of how volatile the question is.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- was the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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