The words of a dead man/are modified in the guts of the living. -- W.H. Auden, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" (1939) (See the rest of the poem.)
Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy had been warned that it would be a career-ending move to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson in the primaries. But he made up his mind that the situation was too serious for individual considerations.
As Francis X. Clines reported in his New York Times obituary, "'There is only one thing to do -- take it to the country!' an angry Senator McCarthy declared in a Capitol corridor 15 months before the 1968 election, after hearing the Johnson administration bullishly defend its right to reinterpret the Constitutional war-making powers of Congress."
Typically, before running for president McCarthy had challenged Johnson on the Senate floor, at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings and in one of his dozen and a half books, The Limits of Power: America's Role in the World. Throughout the summer of 1967 he waited to see if Sen. J. William Fulbright or Sen. Robert F. Kennedy would declare. McCarthy deliberated; then acted decisively.
"I am hopeful that this challenge may alleviate this sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government," McCarthy said at the time. It did that. Even in defeat, McCarthy more rejuvenated citizen participation in electoral politics than any US politician of the post-WWII era. Others may claim that guerdon for Robert F. Kennedy, but Kennedy's portion ensued from, and did not substitute for, McCarthy's.
Most journalism about McCarthy suffered from incomprehension. There just weren't that many classically-educated, civil, decent men of conscience who ran for president. McCarthy's famous image of the press corps' fickleness was of blackbirds on a telephone wire: "When one of them lands, they all land. When one of them flies off, they all fly off. And nobody knows why."
Apparently, McCarthy should have had no trouble against the combined opposition of the Kennedys, the then-pro-war New York Times and Washington Post, the entire US government, as well as the vast military-industrial right wing. Instead, it is customarily asserted that some character flaw, or many of them, in McCarthy prevented his winning.
After 1968, when he was accused of disillusioning his supporters, he responded to the effect that being illusioned was not a good state to be in, and that anyone who helped remove you from that condition ought to be congratulated rather than condemned. This class of wit with a hard truth embedded in it could not soothe any but the thoughtful.
His public service both preceded and followed 1968. In five terms in the House he had founded the Democratic Study Group, a research arm for progressive legislators; debated Joe McCarthy on national TV in 1952 when no one else would touch him; called for limits on the activities of the CIA; was the first to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment; and helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
In the Senate his work was crucial to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1967 and the Voting Rights Act, as Johnson acknowledged. He fought the depletion allowance (a tax gimmick for the oil industry); the poll tax (a segregationist hangover); the unit rule (another minority-voter-suppression device); and, an early environmentalist, the extension of the 3-mile territorial limit for offshore oil drilling. McCarthy's subcommittee hearings into poverty in 1960 supported President John F. Kennedy's Appalachian focus and presaged Johnson's War on Poverty.
After retiring from the Senate in 1970, he continued to challenge the country to rein in the automobile culture, push the Israeli government toward peace in the Middle East, control CIA excesses, repair misguided campaign financing reforms, and tackle unemployment by instituting the 30-hour work week. Again, he felt the causes themselves were worth any ancillary discomfiture.
His work, in parallel with that of Dr. Martin Luther King, began the people's side of the struggle to control the Democratic Party. McCarthy lives on every time the Democrats are forced to expand their base or take a stand against business as usual. His sharp wit and poetry are irreplaceable; but his conscientious behavior remains a beacon.
James McCarty Yeager was a McCarthy volunteer in Houston in 1968 and worked on McCarthy's Washington headquarters staff during his 1976 independent presidential campaign.