McCarthy Lecture 2007 Transcript

The Promise and Limits of Politics: What Gene McCarthy Taught Us

By E.J. Dionne

I cannot describe to you what an honor and joy it is to be able to give this lecture at this magnificent Benedictine institution, and to be able to give a talk in honor of a man who has been important to me from the time I was 15 years old. Indeed, I think of this lecture as a way of partially discharging a debt to Eugene J. McCarthy who changed my way of looking at the world, for the better I think, and who made such an enormous and in many ways underappreciated contribution to our republic.

But before I get too serious, it’s important to underscore that one of Gene McCarthy’s many gifts was an acerbic, dry, brilliant wit. He was what you might call a gleeful skeptic. What Adlai Srtevenson, one of his heroes, said of John Kennedy was true of Gene McCarthy: “If brevity was the soul of wit, he was the soul of witty brevity.”

Consider his view of politics. “Being in politics is like being a football coach,” he said. “You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important.”

He also said: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.”

Of running for office, he said that 90 percent of all campaigning is a waste of time and the problem is to figure out which 90 percent. He described the U.S. Senate as “the last primitive society in the world. We still worship the elders of the tribe and honor the territorial imperative.”

Good Catholic that he was, McCarthy once said: “No man could be equipped for the presidency if he has never been tempted by one of the seven cardinal sins.”

And with apologies to an honorable breed, McCarthy said: “The function of liberal Republicans is to shoot the wounded after the battle.”

Finally, McCarthy gave this advice to all who seek the presidency. “It is dangerous,” he said, “for a national candidate to say things that people might remember.”

But McCarthy took that risk again and again, dropping bombshells in a quiet, sometimes diffident way.

I said I had a debt to Eugene McCarthy and I do and I think there are many like me. When he declared in 1967 that he was running for president to unseat Lyndon Johnson, I was 15 years old and a student at a Benedictine school. I think my two main qualifications for being here today, in fact, are that I share McCarthy’s excellent Catholic name, Eugene Joseph, and the blessings of a Benedictine education.

At the time McCarthy declared for President, my own political views were in flux, and that was actually happening in our whole family, in significant part because of the Vietnam War. There was something so attractive about this reasonable, quietly-spoken man, someone who seemed to be a conservative radical, named Eugene McCarthy.

Note that paradoxical description of McCarthy as a conservative radical. I have read a great deal about him over the years, and so many of the efforts to describe his views fall quickly into paradox. “There was something pure about him, but he was not an innocent,” said his friend and my old teacher Marty Peretz. Exactly right. The writer Keith Burris described him as the first neo-liberal, and then rejected his own formulation, insisting that he was “really something more complicated: a liberal Catholic and a conservative human being.” Burris called McCarthy “an apostate within the Democratic Party: a Catholic committed to social justice but a skeptic about reform, about do-gooders, about the power of the state and the competence of government, and about the liberal reliance upon material cures for social problems.” That’s all true, too.

For a 15 year old Benedictine educated Catholic, there was something irresistible about this peculiar national figure. There was also something heroic. Remember that at the time, opposition to the Vietnam War was being channeled out of the democratic political system and onto the streets. There was no real outlet for opposition to the war in the Republican Party, and many plausible anti-war candidates feared opposing Lyndon B. Johnson. McCarthy took the chance. There was a popular McCarthy poster that came out right after he announced his candidacy that carried what would seem to be the least inspiring slogan anyone ever came up with. The poster carried a large picture of McCarthy wearing a very winning smile and the words: “At last, Democrats have a political alternative.” Not, here’s a great guy or a great leader or a charismatic visionary. He was just “a political alternative.”

And yet that was, in so many ways, one of the most exciting slogans I have ever heard: Here was a man who would take the fight about the war to the voters and to the ballot box. Here was a man who was a skeptic about democracy in some ways but who trusted it enough to insist that a great national issue should be settled peacefully by citizens who would listen, argue, ponder, and then walk into a booth and mark an X on a piece of paper. Whether one agreed with him or not, the decision Gene McCarthy made 40 years ago this year to take the war to the voters vindicated our democracy.

Here’s what he said on November 30, 1967, when he announced his candidacy, and think about it in light of our moment. “There is growing evidence of a deepening moral crisis in America: discontent, frustration, and a disposition to extralegal -- if not illegal -- manifestations of protest.

“I am hopeful,” he went on, “that a challenge may alleviate the sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American government. On college campuses especially, but also among other thoughtful Americans, it may counter the growing sense of alienation from politics which is currently reflected in the tendency to withdraw in either frustration or cynicism, to talk of non-participation and to make threats of support for a third party or a fourth party or other irregular political movements.”

Well, a great deal of history has happened in the 40 years since McCarthy said that, and not all of it was satisfactory to him, or, for that matter, to me. But I am absolutely certain that history has vindicated his campaign, his courage and his boldness. Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy -- I honor them both -- encouraged millions of us in 1968 and after to think anew, to act anew, to hope again in the possibilities of democracy and to believe that the sometimes cumbersome and imperfect instruments of electoral battle could reform and even occasionally revolutionize the nation. Gene McCarthy confirmed my belief and my hope, I’ve never gotten over it, and I remain grateful to him. I am hoping that 40 years on, a new generation will find comparable inspiration, and I have some confidence that it will.

Late in that 1968 campaign, after McCarthy had dislodged Johnson from office, brought Kennedy into the contest and transformed the political year, his handlers produced what remains one of the most striking posters of the modern era. I still have one at home. It showed a small figure of McCarthy walking across a field of flagstones. The slogan read: ''He stood up alone and something happened.''
In the history of political salesmanship, it is one of the most honest slogans ever devised. McCarthy set in motion a series of changes in American politics that are still very much with us. Among other things, he helped organize the antiwar forces inside the Democratic Party into a faction that remains strong to this day. He showed how the Presidential primary process could be used by a challenger. He overturned the old Presidential selection process and gave us the grueling, at times irrational, but more popularly based system we have now.

What is so wonderful and maddening about McCarthy is that he came to think that a great many of the changes he helped bring about, directly and often indirectly, were just plain bad for the country. Gene McCarthy the reformer is also Gene McCarthy the traditionalist, and in his 1987 memoir Up ‘Till Now, he took swipes at some of the very sorts of people who followed his lead in the 60's. “Reform, reorganization, and restructuring of government and of politics, which were all advocated and supported in the name of efficiency, order, and higher morality, moved the country into a higher order of entropy,'' he wrote. He attacked some worthy targets, but also some of my favorite causes, including Common Cause, Congressional reformers, members of Congress whose attendance records are too high -- they must not be doing much real work if they show up for all those meaningless votes, he said -- the Federal campaign finance laws and the new Democratic nomination rules.

Many who came to be his heroes later on in life were very old-fashioned politicians. He has some nice things to say about Sam Rayburn, Wilbur Mills and even Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., who before his death in 1966 was the patriarch of the conservative Democratic machine in Virginia. If there was a single hero -- and here I agree with him -- it was Harry S Truman. The old boys, McCarthy says, understood the political process, knew how to get things done and did it all with less pretension and fewer press releases than the current lot of politicians, who seem to value editorial praise and free television time above all else.

McCarthy was written off by some later in his life as a quirky man who rarely forgot a feud. But this, I think, is not only an uncharitable view. It’s also dead wrong. All through his life, McCarthy was what he said he was: a literate politician who has been true at the deepest level to his Roman Catholic roots. This background produced in him an almost medieval sense of irony about the follies of the modern world and its claims that change can make things better and better and better. McCarthy has always been an Adlai Stevenson liberal and a G. K. Chesterton conservative at the same time. It’s another of those Gene McCarthy paradoxes.

In defending the old Congressional seniority system, for example, he paraphrased Chesterton's defense of heredity monarchy. “'Chesterton pointed out that, whereas the practice was illogical and often resulted in the seating of bad or inadequate rulers,” McCarthy writes, “over the years it seemed to work out, and that, in any case, it did seem to save a lot of trouble.” And McCarthy liked what may be the classic critique of all reformers from the poet William Stafford: ''If you purify the pond,” Stafford wrote, “the water lilies die.''

McCarthy’s plain literacy put most other politicians to shame. And like many conservative critics of modernity, McCarthy was radical in his critique of modern life. Among the words he used to describe American society were these: overfed, overtransported, overfueled, overheated, overcooked, overlighted, overdrugged, overadvertised, overbureaucratized, overincorporated, overdefensed. Note this fantastic mix of critiques against the modern corporation, big government, consumerism, modern medicine, the Pentagon and even contemporary cooking. What was said of the great dissenting political writer Dwight McDonald could also be said of Gene McCarthy: He was a radical in defense of tradition.

Another way of saying the same thing is that he was a Catholic, and that the Benedictines here at St. John’s had an enormous influence on him, as did his own reflections on Catholic social thought.

“The important thing,” he once said, is that one “didn’t separate religion and secular life in any artificial way. The two worked together. The idea of responsibility to society was Benedictine.”

At another point, McCarthy declared: “It is absurd to hold that religion and politics can be kept wholly apart when they meet in the conscience of one man. If a man is religious and if he is in politics, one fact will relate to the other if he is indeed a whole man.”

In his 2004 biography of McCarthy (which McCarthy didn’t like, by the way, but which I think does justice to important aspects of McCarthy’s thinking), Dominic Sandbrook traces the deeply Catholic aspects of McCarthy’s thought -- the key, I think, to his liberalism, his conservatism and his radicalism.

Sandbrook cites a McCarthy speech at a 1952 religious convention in which McCarthy argued that modernity “has destroyed the essential community and social organization which were once a fundamental and vital part of the social structure … The result has been a fragmentation of society, isolating individuals and placing a terrific strain on the natural society, such as the family.” The answer, McCarthy said, was to “Christianize social institutions, such as the neighborhood, the class to which one belongs, the business and professional community, leisure-time activities, culture, means of communication, and political institutions.” He did not advocate a Catholic or Christian agenda or political system. But he insisted that in a Catholic politician there should be at least “some reflection of the whole great body of teaching in the Catholic tradition relating to government and politics and the question of social justice.” In fact, as Sandbrook noted, “he quite explicitly drew a parallel between the liberal agenda of the postwar years and the Catholic inspiration of his youth.” Here’s what McCarthy said:

The Catholic’s regard for the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ should make him more aware of the dignity of men everywhere, should incline him to oppose racial and economic injustice and should open his mind to international cooperation. His response to the command to love his neighbor should be reflected in a willingness to assist others even when they have no claim in justice. His respect for freedom of the will and his certitude of the essential goodness of man’s nature should put him on the side of those willing to take risks to advance human rights and civil liberties.

But McCarthy “took care to distance himself from the increasingly popular evangelical strain of religious politics, and insisted that Catholic politicians should avoid at all costs making “unwarranted appeals to religion.” The genuinely Christian politician, he wrote, “should shun the devices of the demagogue at all times, but especially at a time when anxiety is great, when tension is high, when uncertainty prevails, and emotion tends to be in the ascendancy.” Sandbrook concluded: “The politics of emotion were anathema to a man who had been educated in an institution that prized moderation, clarity and restraint.”

Indeed, McCarthy’s view of a Christian’s approach to politics would not fit him for membership in Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition. “The ideal Christian politician,” he wrote, is not necessarily the one who is seen most often participating in public religious activities, or conferring with religious leaders. He is not necessarily the one who is first and most vociferous to claim that his position is the Christian one.… He has a very special obligation to keep the things of God separate from those of Caesar.”

“The Christian should be humble,” he went on, “reflecting in his actions an awareness of the great mystery of redemption and the shared mystery and dignity of all men.” McCarthy, it should be said, was not always humble, but he did value humility.

“The Chistian in politics,” he also said, “should be distinguished by his alertness to protect and defend the rights of individuals, of family, school, church and other institutions from violation by the state or by other institutions, or by persons. He should be the first to detect a truly totalitarian threat or movement and the last to label every proposal for social reform ‘socialistic’.”

Yes, McCarthy rejected the right-wing tendency to reject all government action on behalf of the common good as dangerous and misguided. Yet his attitude toward government was complicated. In some ways, he was a libertarian mistrustful of the state. His opposition to campaign finance reform (an area where, as it happens, I passionately disagreed with him) reflects this libertarian streak. So, too, did his defense of civil liberties throughout his life, a view of his I share. After 9/11, in response to some of the administration’s actions, McCarthy offered this: “De Tocqueville said you’ll find you’ll lose the freedoms you’re supposed to be defending by setting up your defenses against losing them, and that’s what’s involved in the stuff that Bush is doing,” he said. “We haven’t lost any of our liberties to the Iraqis yet, but we’ve had our own liberties curtailed.”

In perhaps the most comprehensive expression of his political philosophy, Frontiers in American Democracy, published in 1960, McCarthy expressed his alarm at the results of McCarthyism -- that is, the McCarthyism of Joe, not Gene. Gene McCarthy wrote:

Not all persons speak as readily and freely as they once dared to. Nonconformism, which was once tolerated if not admired, is now suspect. The reputation of some men has been destroyed without cause. The use of the label has become much more popular than it has been in the past. Neighbors have been called upon and encouraged to observe and report the activities of neighbors; employees to report on the personal habits and activities of other employees; wire tapping, once frowned upon as a violation of personal freedom, is more generally permissible in court and subject to little or no prosecution when used outside the courts. In too many cases, the basic rights of individuals have been saved only by final appeal to the courts.

I’d just remind everyone that those words that feel so contemporary were written by Gene McCarthy almost half a century ago.

McCarthy was deeply suspicious of loyalty oaths, such as the one students had to sign to accepted their National Defense Education Act loans for college. “Loyalty,” he insisted, not going to be developed significantly by imposing loyalty oaths…” [he wrote]. “Rather, genuine loyalty is more than an external affirmation, more too than a habit uncritically accepted. It is a free and generous act of an informed citizen. It is love of country; of its institutions, its laws, its traditions, the land. More importantly, loyalty requires a special regard and concern for fellow citizens, and certainly part of this respect is trust of neighbor, the assumption that he, too, is devoted to his country and its people.

Yet if McCarthy believed in the limits of government, he also believed in its possibilities. “Man’s need for government remains a positive one,” he said. “Government has a positive and natural function to assist man in the pursuit of perfection and of happiness.” For McCarthy, the “fundamental object of politics is to bring about progressive change in keeping with the demands of social justice.”

“American thought has been strongly influenced by an erroneous, pessimistic concept of the nature and function of the state,” he said in 1951. “Man’s need for the state rests in his rational, social nature … The state has a positive function, namely to assist man in the pursuit of happiness in the temporal order.” McCarthy spoke of government’s obligation “to encourage and promote personal liberty as it encourages and promotes public morality.” McCarthy, following Chesterton, spoke often of the importance of “distributive justice.”

“Government is concerned with the common good,” McCarthy wrote in Frontiers in American Democracy, and the common good includes among other things material welfare, that which is necessary to maintain life, and necessary also as a material aid to intellectual, moral and spiritual growth.” The Great Depression, McCarthy insisted, “established the point of view that the government must assume greater responsibility for economic welfare, and that when the general needs of the country are not met, the common good demands and justifies governmental action.”

McCarthy, as the writer Robert Sherill pointed out, was always the Senate's “foremost crusader for improving the working conditions of migrant laborers, and for prohibiting the importation of Mexican braceros.” McCarthy once told the Senate: “The moral problem should be of more concern than the problem of whether we are to have cheap tomatoes or pickles.”

Incidentally, in light of the current struggle between Congress and the White House over Iraq policy, I cannot resist quoting this bit of McCarthy wisdom from his time as a Senator: “Our function in the Senate,” he said. “is not merely to find out what the Administration policy is and then to say yes or no to it -- oftentimes too late. We have a definite responsibility to develop policy ourselves.” He also disliked the idea that the CIA briefed only a select group of Senators. “If we were to permit the Executive branch to decide which members of Congress to confide in,” he said, “the next step would be to ask, why not let the Secretary of State name the members of the Committee on Foreign Relations, or the Secretary of Defense the members of the Armed Services Committee?”

Wouldn’t it be fun to have him in the Senate now?

There was this extraordinary sense of balance in Mccarthy’s view of the political world. He saw that government as necessary and useful, believed that it could be a moral force for justice. He also saw that government could be oppressive, dangerous and misguided. He could be hopeful about human possibilities and pessimistic about human nature. McCarthy once characterized himself as “ironic rather than satirical; skeptical, not cynical; and optimistic rather than pessimistic, according to the distinction of Chesterton, who wrote that a pessimist was one who saw how bad the state of the world was and despaired of doing anything about it, whereas the optimist saw how bad things were but did not give up hope of change and of improvement.”

He was a realist who revered institutions, and accepted them, flaws and all. “I really believe in institutions, you know, that this is a government of institutions and ideas more than of men,” he said in 1987. And, as Sandbrook noted, he respected the virtues of prudence, compromise and moderation. In 1954 he wrote: “Prudence may require the toleration of evil in order to prevent something worse, and may dictate a decision to let the cockle grow with the wheat for a time.” The politician, he said, “must be realistic, anticipating that in that [real] world, the simple choice between that which is altogether good and that which is altogether bad is seldom given.”

To say that McCarthy was a complicated figure would be an understatement. To say he was a perfect man would violate McCarthy’s own sense of human imperfection. And yet in his lifelong struggle to defend reason, to seek balance, to acknowledge human frailty and human possibility, to understand that government is an imperfect instrument and yet an instrument for good, I think we can find an antidote to an era that is excessively ideological and to a moment when too many of us are too certain of ourselves and too persuaded of our own righteousness.

Speaking of Gene McCarthy after he died, Ken Rudin of National Public Radio described him as “a reluctant national figure, to say the least. He was not a showboat; he looked more comfortable reading poetry than drawing attention to himself.”

Although McCarthy was a genuinely ambitious figure, I think Rudin is right, and I think McCarthy might not mind if I closed with one of his many fine poems:

Courage After Sixty

Now it is certain.
There is no magic stone.
No secret to be found.
One must go
With the mind's winnowed learning.
No more than the child's handhold
On the willows bending over the lake,
On the sumac roots at the cliff edge.
Ignorance is checked,
Betrayals scratched.
The coat has been hung on the peg,
The cigar laid on the table edge,
The cue chosen and chalked,
The balls set for the final break.
All cards drawn,
All bets called.
The dice, warm as blood in the hand,
Shaken for the last cast.
The glove has been thrown to the ground,
The last choice of weapons made.
A book for one thought.
A poem for one line.
A line for one word.
"Broken things are powerful."
Things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is truest.

For McCarthy, all the cards are drawn, all the bets are called, and I think it can be said that he lived up to his own credo, that “there is a certain power in human reason, which is really the only instrument we have with which we can give some direction to life and history.”

We honor him for his ornery, implacable love of reason, for his independence, and for his courage. And we look again, thinking of that speech of his 40 years ago, for inspiration that will counter the growing sense of alienation from politics and restore to the people a belief in their system of government. We need political alternatives. We need people willing to stand up, alone if necessary, and make something good happen. Gene McCarthy dared to stand up and dared to be that alternative.