>SIDEBAR: McCarthy remembered

>Note: SIDEBAR is the term I use when talking about my personal experiences that relate in someway to news of the day. In news reporting, it refers to a secondary feature, usually in a “box,” that highlights a facet of the primary news story. It is borrowed from the legal profession, when judges and attorneys stand to the side of the public “bar” (judge’s bench) to engage in an unrecorded private discussion.

Some of the most delightful moments I can recall were private dinners with Gene McCarthy, the former U.S. Senator from Minnesota, when he visited Chicago. His claim to public fame is much to narrow to describe him. For sure he mounted a presidential campaign that drew attention to the political vulnerability of President Lyndon Johnson – who sought refuge in withdrawing from the 1968 race.

While McCarthy’s anti-war sentiment was more on procedure than purpose, he became the personification of the anti-war, pacifist movement. He was the Pied Piper of the hippie peaceniks.

In private, he would confess that he was neither anti-war nor a zealous reformer. His opposition to Viet Nam was based on his belief that the conflict was not Constitutionally sound. He felt we entered without the proper authorization, and that the war was expanded solely by Presidential decisions without the oversight of the Congress.

On matters of reform, he was even more surprising. He completely rejected prevailing reform views found popularized in the press. While seemingly a very honest and principled politician, McCarthy was a product of the old school. I recall one particular conversation in which he rejected the reformer appellation. “You know, Larry,” he said, “if you purify the pond the lilies die.” He said there was always a need of a bit of sediment in the system.

On another occasion, McCarthy compared reformers to a priest in his home town, who urged parishioners to express their devotion by making more use of the vigil candles. He even installed additional banks of the red glass holders to accommodate more use. “Eventually,” said McCarthy, “the good farther burned the church down.”

“That is what unbridled reformers tend to do,” he added. “They will burn down the whole place.”

His descriptions of his colleagues were tinged with a certain Irish sarcastic wit. When I inquired about Jimmy Carter, he alleged that the former president learned most of what he knew in the Navy on board submarines, and unfortunately there was only room for very small books and Reader’s Digest.

He did not give a much better assessment of Ronald Reagan. He just saw him as entirely too ignorant to be president. Ditto Jerry Ford. Ditto Richard Nixon. All fell victim to McCarthy’s acerbic wit.

He lost the wit, however, when talking of the Kennedy’s. There was no gentleness, or Irish kinship, in his hatred of the Kennedy family. When talking of the Kennedy family, there was none of the poetics or humor. There was only an unabated bitterness. He blamed the Kennedys for preventing his nomination as the Democrat candidate. His loathing for Bobby Kennedy was not tempered by the New York senator’s tragic death. He considered him an unprincipled opportunist who made his play for the presidency only after McCarthy had brought down Johnson. He was not wrong.

On total, one got the impression that McCarthy held himself to be of more substantial presidential timber than any who succeeded where he had failed. And yet, there was a charming aristocratic air about the man. When talking about issues, and things other than his political colleagues, he was fascinating — a compendium of knowledge and insightful correlations.

He was at his best, however, when he played the story teller or the poet. Whether at the dinner table with my wife and me, or before a modest audience, he was on stage. He would, at no obvious provocation, recite long verses from memory. I recall at one event, he held stage for more than forth-five minutes on a single poem.

Seeing all the press attention and adulation he received in death, I could not help by wonder where the press had been these many years as he lived in virtual public oblivion.

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