January 23, 2006
by Al Eisele '58
I never called him Gene. It was always Senator, even during the many times we saw each other in the 40 years I covered him in the Senate, as a presidential candidate, and afterwards, when he became a kind of one-man Greek chorus, warning the nation of the perils that lay ahead if we didn’t honor our commitment to the ideals and principles of democratic self-government. When I saw him for the last time a week before he died, I greeted him as Senator, knowing that I’d never help the frail bedridden figure celebrate his 90th birthday, as I had his 80th and 85th.
Eugene McCarthy was sui generis, literally “of his own kind.” There was always something that set him apart, a space you didn’t violate, an informal formality that allowed easy talk of politics and baseball and memories of St. John’s, good and bad, but left you with the feeling that you were in the presence of a special person. He was, of course, a politician, first and foremost, so skilled at the art of winning votes that he could walk through a bar on the Iron Range or in South Boston, and for days afterwards, people would say, “Hey, did you see Gene McCarthy here the other night?” It was an instinctive gift, like that of a great athlete who is born with it and doesn’t know or care where it came from.
But he was much more. He was a poet and writer who wrote more than 16 books, a philosopher deeply grounded in the Catholic faith, an honest-to-God intellectual who could quote Plato and Yeats and Jacques Maritain and who met Pope John XXIII and Marc Chagall but knew that a cow lies down one half at a time and gets up in reverse, and could describe how a chicken acts after it’s decapitated. And he had a wicked wit that could decapitate a political foe or reduce an abstruse piece of legislation into an easily understood idea. He infuriated his enemies and often perplexed his friends in his later years, but he also inspired countless people by his honesty and integrity.
Most of all, he was a man of courage who was willing to stand up at a critical moment in American history and warn the nation that it was engaged in an unwinnable war that was diplomatically indefensible, constitutionally questionable and morally wrong. When McCarthy announced his anti-war candidacy in 1967, the number of American military personnel killed in Vietnam was 15,858. When the war finally ended five years later, after he had left the Senate, the number was more than 58,000.
His stand against the war was a singular act of courage that grows larger in retrospect and guarantees him a secure place in the history of his country. He was, as he said of his friend, the late Senator Phil Hart of Michigan, “a man out of his proper time, a man meant for the Age of Faith … when men like Thomas More could make their last defense, beyond the civil law, in religious belief.”
This tribute was printed in the Winter 2006 issue of the Saint John's Magazine.