The Promise & Limits of Politics

What Gene McCarthy Taught Us

How many Americans had their view of the world changed by a quietly passionate man whose campaign for the presidency in 1968 brought the battle over a mistaken war into the democratic process? There is no polling on the subject that I know of, but my hunch is that Eugene J. McCarthy forced millions of us to reconsider a great many things about politics, and forced quite a few to think afresh about the relationship between religious faith and political commitment.

Liberals who were alive then still do battle over whether Gene McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy was the proper standard-bearer for their cause (and not a few will stand up in defense of Hubert Humphrey). That’s not my fight-McCarthy spoke to my head, Kennedy to my gut, and the ebullient Humphrey steadily grew on me over the years. They all changed the country, and I feel a personal debt to them because, in the process, they changed me. But of those three giants of liberalism, McCarthy, who died in 2005 at the age of eighty-nine, is the one whose contribution has been underappreciated.

Perhaps one of McCarthy’s greatest gifts got in the way: his dry, acerbic, and often brilliant wit. He was a gleeful skeptic. Consider his view of politics. “Being in politics is like being a football coach,” he once said. “You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.” And: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” Good Catholic that he was, he once remarked that “no man could be equipped for the presidency if he has never been tempted by one of the seven cardinal sins.” Finally, he offered some cautionary advice to all those who sought the office: “It is dangerous,” he warned, “for a national candidate to say things that people might remember.” But McCarthy himself took that risk again and again, dropping bombshells in a quiet, sometimes diffident way.

When he declared in 1967 that he was running for president to unseat Lyndon B. Johnson, I was fifteen years old and a student at a Benedictine school. At the time, my own political views were in flux, in large part because of the Vietnam War. Like many young Americans, I saw something extraordinarily attractive in this reasonable, soft-spoken man who seemed to be a conservative radical.

That sounds paradoxical. But then, so many of the efforts to describe McCarthy and his views over the years fall quickly into paradox. The writer Keith Burris called him “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.” Such apostasy, Burris concludes, was the consequence of being “a liberal Catholic and a conservative human being.” “There was something pure about him, but he was not an innocent,” said McCarthy’s friend and my old teacher Martin Peretz, long-time editor-in-chief of the New Republic.

And there was something heroic about him, too. At the time, many plausible antiwar candidates feared opposing Johnson, and opposition to the Vietnam War was being channeled away from the democratic political system and into the streets. But McCarthy took the chance. Here was a man who would take the fight about the war to the voters-a man skeptical about democracy in some ways, yet trusting 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 forty years ago-to take the war to the voters-vindicated our democracy. “There is growing evidence of a deepening moral crisis in America,” he said on November 30, 1967, announcing his candidacy. “I am hopeful 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.”

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 one of the most striking posters of the modern era. It showed McCarthy as a small figure walking across a field of flagstones outside one of the Senate office buildings. The slogan read: “He stood up alone and something happened.” Rarely has a political slogan been so truthful: something-indeed, many things-happened because of McCarthy. 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 helped give us the grueling, occasionally irrational, but more popularly based system we have now.

Later in life, the man himself seemed of two minds about these changes, as if McCarthy the traditionalist mistrusted many of the changes McCarthy the reformer helped bring about. In his 1987 memoir Up ’Til Now, he took swipes at some of the very sorts of people who followed his lead in the 1960s. He attacked some cherished liberal causes and standard-bearers, 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.

Meanwhile, he had 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 McCarthy had a single hero, it was Harry S. Truman-a good choice. The old boys, McCarthy said, 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. As it happens, I think he was wrong about campaign-finance reform and, ironically, many of those who took his side in 1968 were the very reformers he later disdained. My hunch is that he appreciated the irony.

“Irony” and “paradox” are words that are hard to avoid when talking about McCarthy. In fact, he was always an Adlai Stevenson liberal and a G. K. Chesterton conservative at the same time. In defending the old congressional seniority system, for example, he paraphrased Chesterton’s defense of heredity monarchy. And he liked to quote 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.” Like many conservative critics of modernity, McCarthy was radical in his critique of modern life. Among the words he used to describe American society in Up ’Til Now were these: overfed, overtransported, overfueled, overheated, overcooked, overlighted, overdrugged, overadvertised, overbureaucratized, overincorporated, overdefensed. Note this fantastic mix of critiques tossed at the modern corporation, at big government, consumerism, modern medicine, the Pentagon, and even contemporary cooking! What was said of the great dissenting political writer Dwight Macdonald 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 with an almost medieval sense of irony about the follies of the modern world and its claim that change will make things better and better. His worldview also inclined him toward something other than the liberal conventional wisdom concerning church and state. “It is absurd to hold that religion and politics can be kept wholly apart when they meet in the conscience of one man,” he once said. “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, Eugene McCarthy and the Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism, Dominic Sandbrook traces the deeply Catholic aspects of McCarthy’s thought. Sandbrook cites a speech at a 1952 religious convention in which McCarthy, at the time a young congressman, lambasted modernity for its destructive effect on community-“a fragmentation of society, isolating individuals and placing a terrific strain on the natural society, such as the family.” The answer, McCarthy recommended, 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 wasn’t advocating a Christian agenda or political system. But he insisted that a Catholic politician should embody 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 notes, McCarthy explicitly linked the liberal agenda of the postwar years to the Catholic inspiration of his youth. The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ should inculcate an awareness of the dignity of all men, leading one to oppose racial and economic injustice and support international cooperation. A Catholic belief in freedom of the will and in the essential goodness of man’s nature should conduce to advancing human rights and civil liberties. And so on. But as a politician he “took care to distance himself from the increasingly popular evangelical strain of religious politics,” Sandbrook observes. The genuinely Christian politician, McCarthy 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.”

Indeed, his view of a Christian approach to politics would have disqualified him for membership in the 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.” Characteristically, McCarthy’s vision of Christian politics combined what we now think of as incompatible positions of the Left and Right. He thought the engaged Christian would be “the first to detect a truly totalitarian threat or movement and the last to label every proposal for social reform ‘socialistic.’”

Such an attitude toward government, in other words, was complex. In some ways, McCarthy was a libertarian mistrustful of the state, and his opposition to campaign finance reform reflected this libertarian streak. So, too, did his lifelong defense of civil liberties. In perhaps the most comprehensive expression of his political philosophy, Frontiers in American Democracy, published in 1960, he expressed his alarm at McCarthyism-the Joe variety-excoriating it for inciting conformism and fear, and condemning its reliance on loyalty oaths, such as the one students had to take to receive their National Defense Education Act loans for college. (“Loyalty,” he insisted, “is more than an external affirmation.... It is a free and generous act of an informed citizen.”)

Yet if Gene McCarthy believed in the limits of government, he also believed in its possibilities. “American thought has been strongly influenced by an erroneous, pessimistic concept of the nature and function of the state,” he said in 1951, anticipating by three decades the triumph of antigovernment conservatism. Government was necessary to promote the common good, he argued in Frontiers in American Democracy-necessary not only to assist material welfare, but “also as a material aid to intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth.” The Great Depression, he insisted, had shown that these two realms were inextricable; and that is why, as the writer Robert Sherrill pointed out, he always led Senate efforts to improve the working conditions of migrant laborers. “The moral problem,” McCarthy once exhorted his fellow senators, “should be of more concern than the problem of whether we are to have cheap tomatoes or pickles.”

In light of the current struggle between Congress and the White House over Iraq policy, I cannot resist quoting a bit of wisdom from McCarthy’s years 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 chided his colleagues, “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? More than ever, we need the kind of perspective McCarthy continued to offer right up to the end of his life-as when, in response to some of the administration’s actions after 9/11, he summoned Tocqueville’s warning that freedom tends to be imperiled by the very defenses ostensibly set up to preserve it. “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.”

And how about this description of attenuated civil liberties in a time of external threat:

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.... 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 too many cases, the basic rights of individuals have been saved only by final appeal to the courts.

Those words, so relevant to us now, were written by Gene McCarthy almost half a century ago, and we wait for their equal today. We look again, as we did forty years ago, for inspiration that will counter alienation from politics and restore to the people a belief in their system of government. Perhaps most of all we look for a vision that might reconcile political insights that in recent decades have driven people to the extremes of our badly polarized politics. McCarthy had just such a vision. There was an extraordinary sense of balance in his view of the political world. He saw that government was necessary and useful, believed that it could be a moral force for justice; but he also saw that government could be oppressive, dangerous, and misguided. He could be hopeful about human possibilities and pessimistic about human nature.

Above all, he was a realist who revered institutions, and accepted them, flaws and all. As Sandbrook noted, he respected the virtues of prudence, compromise, and moderation. In 1954 McCarthy 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 McCarthy was a complicated figure would be an understatement. To say that he had his imperfections would only vindicate McCarthy’s own sense of flawed human nature-and he could face the flaws in himself no less than in others. And yet in his lifelong struggle to seek balance, to acknowledge both 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 the ideological excesses of an era when too many of us are too certain of ourselves, too persuaded of our own righteousness.

A great deal of history went by in the decades after McCarthy stood up and made something happen, and not all of it was satisfactory to him. But I am sure that history has vindicated his campaign and his boldness. Along with Robert Kennedy, McCarthy encouraged millions of us in 1968 and afterward to hope again in the possibilities of democracy, and to believe that the sometimes cumbersome and always imperfect instruments of electoral battle could reform and even revolutionize the nation. We should not forget his courage, his independence, and, perhaps above all, his ornery, implacable love of reason.

Published in the 2007-11-09 issue: 

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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