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McCarthy in Winter

The Ex-Senator Looks Back at '68 and Forward to Electoral Reform

September 02, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

Eugene McCarthy has become a ghostly figure.

The hair is white, his motions slow and his once-distinguishing height angled over a cane.

But the penalties of being 82 wear on him much easier than a recent alternative--six months in a Washington hospital, including a lengthy stay in intensive care, as he recovered from a herniated disc and nasty complications.

The Associated Press reported gravely on McCarthy's illness last fall, but the dispatch did little to pull the former Minnesota senator and Democratic presidential candidate from the shadows he had entered long before. In conversations in the New York area and in Washington, even some of the best-informed members of the media are surprised to learn that McCarthy has been around all this time, let alone that he is still speaking out, writing and decrying perceived flaws in the political system, as he did when he was making history 30 yearsago.

Indeed, three decades after the wretched year that claimed the lives of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the former antiwar presidential candidate is the lone surviving giant in a cast that also included Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Daley and Spiro Agnew who can offer front-row witness to that tumultuous period. He does so in a new book of political essays, "No-Fault Politics," published by Times Books, in which he recalls 1968 and presents fresh evidence that he remains a wry and provocative thinker who defies easy definition as a liberal. Boston Globe columnist Martin F. Nolan calls the new book, peppered with passages from Chesterton, Shakespeare and other luminaries, "as sharp as a Minnesota winter."

"I'm coming along all right," McCarthy said after walking a couple of blocks in the furnace heat of Washington to a recent interview. "I had kind of a rough time when I was sick. But I'm almost free of this cane."

McCarthy--a onetime Benedictine novice, a published poet, a laconic man who seemed to writer Norman Mailer "more like the dean of the finest English department in the land"--proclaimed late in 1967 that the Vietnam War had created "a moral crisis in America." Braving the wrath of Johnson, who had considered McCarthy as his running mate in 1964, he decided to challenge the president in a few Democratic primaries in 1968.

Thousands of college students, many of them shedding beards and beads to be "clean for Gene," rallied to his cause in New Hampshire and helped him finish an unthinkable second to Johnson, with 42% of the Democratic primary vote. Although Kennedy had been preparing his own run all along, McCarthy's near-upset prompted the New York senator to declare his candidacy four days later. Two weeks after that, on March 31, a weary Johnson stunned the pols and the people by announcing he would neither seek nor accept his party's nomination for reelection.

Kennedy was assassinated in June, moments after claiming his win over McCarthy in the crucial California primary. And Humphrey, the vice president, finally ended McCarthy's issue-driven campaign by capturing the Democratic nomination at the Chicago convention that began 30 years ago last month as police battled civilians in the streets (and McCarthy tended to bloodied supporters in a makeshift medical ward at the Hilton Hotel). Two years later, McCarthy left the Senate and went on to become a footnote to presidential politics by waging quixotic campaigns for the White House in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992 as he also continued to write poetry and other books.

"I appreciate it more and more," McCarthy said of the memorable 1968 campaign, tilting his head back and slipping a hand into his jacket pocket, as he did so many times at the microphones. "You find people who say it was a great period of their life, the first time they were called upon to make that kind of social, moral decision. They were sort of able to rally around me. Up until that time, it was kind of undirected protest [against the Vietnam War]. It's unique too, if you make a great historic generalization, that you shouldn't expect or have to wait for young people to make the great political decision of the period. They didn't do it alone, but they were a strong force in deciding against the war."

Opening the Process to More Candidates

What McCarthy argues for in his book--indeed, what he has pursued as a fringe candidate and essayist in the last 30 years--is an opening up of the political process to all kinds of candidates, especially those outside the two major parties.

For example, as one who sorely needed the large donations that he received from several wealthy souls in 1968, McCarthy scorns the limits on campaign contributions imposed by federal law, such as the $1,000 ceiling on individual gifts to a presidential primary bid.

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