Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the Minnesota Democrat whose insurgent candidacy catalyzed public opposition to the war in Vietnam and forced President Johnson from office in 1968, would have appreciated the exquisite irony that attended the timing of his death.
Only hours before the 89-year-old McCarthy died in a Georgetown nursing home, another president from Texas was in McCarthy’s home state defending another unpopular war that threatens to cripple his presidency and divide the nation.
President Bush, speaking at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser in Minneapolis on Friday night for a Republican congressman seeking McCarthy’s old seat, warned that those calling for a timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq “would embolden the enemy, would confuse the Iraqis and would send the wrong signal to our young men and women in uniform.”
Bush’s words at the event for Rep. Mark Kennedy echoed those used by LBJ 37 years ago after McCarthy denounced the Vietnam War as “morally indefensible” and called for an end to America’s escalating military involvement. McCarthy’s short-lived candidacy helped turn public support against Johnson and the war and led to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam after some 54,000 Americans died there.
From the vantage point of a reporter who covered McCarthy for 40 years and came to know both the public and private sides of this enigmatic poet-politician, there is no doubt that McCarthy would be cheering on Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who sparked widespread debate with his recent call for an immediate start to American redeployment out of Iraq.
McCarthy’s conviction that no president can wage war without being challenged by Congress or the people never wavered, from the time I reported on his gradual disillusionment with Johnson’s Vietnam policy in late 1967 to my last visit with him as he lay bedridden in his book-strewn apartment at his Georgetown retirement home a week ago Sunday.
McCarthy was very frail and his voice so faint I could hardly hear him, but he was in good spirits and responded with a weak wave when I suggested that history was repeating itself. I don’t know if he understood me or was agreeing with me, but there was no misunderstanding his views on Bush’s foreign policy when he invited me to meet George F. Kennan three years earlier.
Kennan, then 98, was the chief architect of the containment and deterrence policies that had shaped U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. He was temporarily living at the same retirement home, and we met in McCarthy’s apartment. McCarthy shared Kennan’s misgivings about the Bush administration’s bellicosity toward Iraq.
Kennan warned against the unforeseen consequences of war and said Congress, not Bush, should decide whether the United States should take military action against Iraq.
“Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind,” he said as McCarthy looked on approvingly, “but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before.
“War has a momentum of its own, and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq ... you never know where you are going to end.”
McCarthy’s anti-war views never wavered from the time he walked out of a hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee on Aug. 17, 1967, after hearing Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach declare that Congress was “compelled” to support the administration’s Vietnam policies. As he told me and a New York Times reporter, “This is the wildest testimony I have ever heard. There is no limit to what he says the president can do. There is only one thing to do — take it to the country.”
He did, and in the process touched off one of the most tumultuous years in American history that saw Johnson forced from office, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy assassinated, the Democratic Party self-destructing at its violent Chicago convention and McCarthy’s Minnesota colleague, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, losing the presidency to Richard Nixon.
Exhilarated by his meteoric climb to national prominence but bruised by his campaign’s collapse, McCarthy retreated into political limbo after 1968.
He left the Senate in 1970, handing over his seat to Humphrey and leaving his party and even his wife, while spending the next 35 years writing his memoirs and poetry, calling for reform of the political process and for limiting executive power giving speeches and retreating to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains near Woodville, Va., where he will be buried in a private service today.
Many political analysts, historians and biographers have tried to understand and explain McCarthy, but most have found it as fruitless an endeavor as the four increasingly futile presidential campaigns he mounted after leaving the Senate. As one of his biographers who saw him regularly through those years, I probably came no closer to understanding and defining him than most others. But it is clear he was shaped by his early environment.
The son of a deeply religious mother of German descent and strong-willed father of Irish descent who was a postmaster and cattle buyer known for his earthy wit, McCarthy grew up in a small town in central Minnesota as one of four children. A bright student who spent hours reading his aunt’s Harvard Classics, he was deeply influenced by the monks at nearby St. John’s Abbey and University, where he spent seven years as a student, teacher and, briefly, a Benedictine novice.
As part of the oldest religious order in the Western world, the St. John’s Benedictines have been among the most progressive forces in American Catholicism, remaining open to new thinking and innovative approaches to dealing with contemporary social and economic ferment while staying faithful to Church tradition and doctrine. McCarthy spent nine months as a novice before deciding he didn’t have a religious calling and left the monastery, causing a fellow novice to say, “It was like losing a 20-game winner.”
McCarthy’s subsequent career as a college teacher, five-term member of the House of Representatives, senator for 12 years and gadfly politician has been well-chronicled. But I am convinced his exposure to papal encyclicals dealing with social justice hold the key to understanding him.
McCarthy’s unorthodox behavior since 1968 has obscured his earlier achievements and perplexed many of his colleagues, friends and supporters.
But he showed that not even the immense power of the presidency can withstand the opposition of a public aroused by someone speaking out against what he sees as an immoral action of his government.
Eisele’s 1972 biography of McCarthy and former Vice President Humphrey, Almost to the Presidency, will be updated and reissued under a new title next year by Smoky Dragon Press.