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Issue Date:  December 23, 2005

Eugene McCarthy dies at 89


Nov. 30, 1967, saw a fierce early winter storm blow into Washington. Amid the snowdrifts, another storm gripped the capital: Sen. Gene McCarthy’s. The Minnesota Democrat, energized by his personal opposition to the Vietnam War and seeing no one in Congress having the nerve to buck the war making President Lyndon Johnson, announced that he was running for the presidency. “I am hopeful,” he said, “that the challenge I am making may alleviate the [current] sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics.”

I remember the day because across town from where Gene McCarthy was having a rousing moment, my wife and I were having ours: the birth our first child.

I wrote a note to the senator saying that Nov. 30 was an all-around memorable day for the McCarthy clan: He brought new life to politics and my wife and I had a new life for us. He wrote back with congratulations.

So began a friendship that would last until Gene’s death Dec. 10 at a retirement residence in a Georgetown neighborhood in Washington. He was 89. Several times he sent our family his latest book. Every year on Nov. 30, I sent an anniversary card. Knowing of our family’s ties to baseball -- two of our three boys played college baseball and one made it to the pros -- Gene sent a photograph of himself in a baseball uniform at home plate leaning into a low pitch. A few years ago, he invited my wife and me to his country home 70 miles southwest of Washington in rural Virginia for a long afternoon of conversation.

Though McCarthys with common roots to Ireland’s County Cork, we were not blood relatives. But for more than three decades I had kindred feelings for Gene’s antiwar politics, his commitment to social justice and his self-discipline that produced a steady stream of cant-free books, essays and poetry.

With 22 years in Congress -- 12 in the Senate, 10 in the House -- Gene McCarthy was such a towering figure in politics that The Washington Post said, “His [1967] challenge to an incumbent president of the same political party changed the course of history.” He might have won the presidency in 1968 had Sen. Robert F. Kennedy not entered the race as an antiwar candidate well after Gene, risking much, showed the country how to challenge a seemingly unchallengeable president. In fact, Kennedy said in January 1968: “I can’t conceive of any circumstances in which I would run.” Two months later he ran. In June 1968, tragically, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, who lacked the political courage to oppose Johnson’s war. Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, who let the killing in Vietnam go on for seven more years. Had McCarthy become president, tens of thousands of people -- Vietnamese, Cambodians and Americans -- might not have vainly died in Vietnam.

Professionally, there were three Gene McCarthys: the politician, the writer-thinker and the social critic.

In the Senate, a clubby enclave, Gene never joined the club. He rarely slapped a back, he loathed posturing, he spoke no happy-talk platitudes, and he bonded with morally driven colleagues such as Philip Hart of Michigan, Paul Douglas of Illinois and Mark Hatfield of Oregon. He had this wry advice for citizens at election time: Never trust a politician who quotes the Bible, the Internal Revenue Code or who “states that he or she was moved to run for office by sudden inspiration on visiting Washington as a part of a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop.”

Gene’s books, numbering more than a dozen, included No Fault Politics, The Hard Years, Complexities and Contraries, Other Things and the Aardvark and, just last January, Parting Shots from My Brittle Bow. Gene’s prose was richly flecked with allusions to theology, history and philosophy.

Much of the learning came from his early Minnesota years as a high school and college teacher, which followed his nine months as a novice in the Benedictine Abbey at St. John’s, Collegeville, Minn.

One of his wittiest essays, on theology and golf, probed a dispute among the monks of St. John’s in the 1930s. The abbot, Gene wrote, came out against golf: “It violated the basic Benedictine rule of community in all matters: piety, clothing, food, even in sports. Golf, the abbot held, encouraged individual achievement, singularity, departure from the common rule. The game might be all right for parish priests … but it was not to be tolerated as part of the central monastic compound.” Despite the abbot, “a good many monks through the years somehow not only played the game but became proficient in it -- testimony to the integrity of the game and to the power of Andrew, patron saint of golfers.”

As a social critic, Gene, like his literary friends Robert Lowell and William Stafford, often relied on poetry. His nuanced “My Lai Conversation,” ranks high in antiwar poetry.

How old are you, small Vietnamese boy?
Six fingers. Six years.
Why did you carry water to the
   wounded soldier, now dead?
Your father.
Your father was enemy of free
You also now are enemy of free
Who told you to carry water to
   your father?
Your mother.
Your mother is also enemy of
   free world.
You go into ditch with your
American politician has said,
“It is better to kill you as a boy
   in the elephant grass
   of Vietnam
Than to have to kill you as a
   man in the rye grass
   of the USA.” …
You will be number 128 in the
   body count for today.
High body count will make the
Of free world much encouraged.
Good-bye, small six-year-old
   Vietnamese boy, enemy of
   free world.

Never heavy-hearted for long, Gene knew the art of witty commentary. Campaigning in 1968 against Robert Kennedy, he told his Catholic audiences: “I have the nuns, Bobby has the monsignors.”

During his first months in Congress in the late 1940s a bill was passed to sanitize American militarism: “The War Department was no more,” Gene wrote. “It was replaced by the less aggressive but more enduring and unassailable Department of Defense. The need for a large war department might be challenged if there was no war. … The demands for defense are potentially without limit. No matter how thorough its defense efforts were, the animal in Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ remained fearful and insecure. A scratching sound was disturbing, as was silence.”

Gene’s marriage of 24 years to Abigail Quigley did not survive the strains of the 1968 campaign. In the 1970s and ’80s, my wife and I were regular visitors to Abigail’s home. I don’t recall her ever saying an unkind word about Gene. The couple had four children: Mary who died in 1990; Michael, a physician who lives in Seattle; and Ellen and Margaret who live in the Washington area.

One of Gene’s loveliest poems was about his daughter Margaret:

She is very hard to find.
Her eyes are speckled,
Her nose is freckled,
Her hair between chestnut and
Her smile is almost a frown …
She’s a trout in the sun,
A fawn in the shade,
A chameleon, ever changing
When asked to use an umbrella,
   she maintains
“I have had very little trouble
   with rain.”

Neither did Gene.

Colman McCarthy, a regular NCR columnist, teaches courses on nonviolence at four universities and three high schools in the Washington area.

National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2005

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