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,...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).