The Magazine

From Gene to Dean

The children's crusade in American politics.

Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Eugene McCarthy

The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism

by Dominic Sandbrook

Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95

OVER THE PAST YEAR, as Howard Dean's Children's Crusade emerged from the dorms and classrooms and ecstasy raves of America's colleges, and the young crusaders began tilting their wooden (and very sharp) swords toward the heart of what remains of the Democratic party establishment, some of us turned our thoughts to the first Children's Crusade in American politics--the one led against the party establishment in 1968 by the improbable figure of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota.

Hoary ruminations on McCarthy may well become unavoidable in the next few weeks with the appearance of a new biography by a British historian named Dominic Sandbrook. "Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism" is an interesting book, handsomely written, and closely researched. And while Sandbrook, like all sober-sided biographers, declines to draw cheap, facile parallels between his historical subject and today's headlines, his work is rich enough to allow others, like me, to do so.

It would be too bad, though, if reviewers relied on Sandbrook's book alone for their parallel-drawing, for "Eugene McCarthy" betrays a hostility toward Eugene McCarthy that verges on character assassination. They say every biographer begins to hate his subject somewhere during his research, in keeping with the principle that familiarity breeds contempt, and that the biographer's duty therefore lies in crawling his way back toward something like toleration, if not affection, before he finishes his work. Sandbrook's familiarity with McCarthy evidently curdled into contempt early on, and he never crawled back. As McCarthy meanders through a long, various, and eventful career, Sandbrook snipes at him from behind any available rock, never troubling with inconsistencies in the line of attack. McCarthy is reactionary, except when he is unrealistically liberal. He is too idealistic; he is too cynical. He has his head in the clouds and entertains the basest motives exclusively. He is a crudely ambitious pol who cares only about writing vers libre. He cracks jokes that, while very funny, are often inappropriate, and he's humorless to boot.

Where the historical record is thin, Sandbrook speculates, as biographers will--yet only when it ill serves his subject. McCarthy never catches a break. I put the book down with no intention of picking it back up when, about two-thirds through, I came across the sentence that distills the Sandbrookian method. McCarthy's view of constitutional interpretation grew more conservative over the years--a development his biographer accounts for like so: "This was no doubt a matter of personal pique as much as philosophical conviction." That "no doubt" gives the game away: I don't have any evidence for this, but what else would you expect from such a creep? McCarthy was a fastidiously private "public figure," and his motives were always hard to discern, but Sandbrook patches these holes in his narrative with a caulk of bile. The poor guy must have hated writing this book.

BUT I PICKED IT UP AGAIN ANYWAY, because (his biographer notwithstanding) McCarthy stands out from recent political history as a uniquely appealing man: funny, thoughtful, eccentric, allusive; a professional politician whose mind had plenty left over when the politics was done. He's hard to figure out. No one, early in McCarthy's career, could have predicted that his political life would reach a climax with an effort to unhorse a president of his own party. As a young man he had entered a Benedictine seminary, dropped out, joined up again, and dropped out again, and he never shook the habits of a mind steeped in Catholic scholasticism. His classical training would emerge at the unlikeliest moments. Watching from a hotel window as a phalanx of Chicago police-men waded into protestors during the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention, he turned to a companion and said the horrible scene reminded him of the Battle of Lake Trasimeno.

Sandbrook respects the intellectual influences that shaped McCarthy's thinking and he explains them well. As a student in the 1930s McCarthy was part of the Catholic Worker crowd, theologically orthodox but politically left-wing, and to this day McCarthy still reminisces fondly of visits with Dorothy Day. After seminary, he tried his hand at farming, then took a job teaching economics at a Catholic college in Minnesota--which, given the state of Catholic thought about the marketplace in those days, was a bit like teaching Transubstantiation at the Wharton School. He never did get the hang of how a free market might work, and he remained a quasi-socialist for most of his career.

McCarthy won his first race for Congress in 1948. He was a protégé of Hubert Humphrey, then the dynamo mayor of Minneapolis who had led the purge of Communists from the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. Like Humphrey--and like Harry Truman, their national leader--McCarthy was a committed Cold Warrior, his anti-communism as much a part of his Catholic disposition as his watered socialism.

In Washington he was a competent congressman but easily bored. He preferred to attend windy conferences on such topics as "the intersection of Catholic thought and political action," and he thereby made a name for himself as a political intellectual in the mold of Adlai Stevenson (although, unlike Stevenson, he insisted on writing his books himself). When a Senate seat opened up in 1958, the party elders suggested he take it.

By the middle of his second Senate term, however, he was bored again and drifting leftward, away from the anti-Communist consensus that had undergirded his career, and his party, for twenty years. The immediate cause was Lyndon Johnson's feckless prosecution of the Vietnam War. McCarthy fell also under the influence of Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, the increasingly dovish chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. As intellectual influences go, this was a step down from Thomas Aquinas.

With Fulbright, McCarthy formed the nucleus of an antiwar cell in the Senate and within the national Democratic party--"bomb-throwers," Johnson called them, without irony. But as a national figure McCarthy was still second tier in 1967. An itinerant group of activists wandered the Senate office building in search of a senator who would dare run against Johnson's then-assured reelection bid, solidifying the new "peace movement" by turning it into a presidential campaign. For a Democratic officeholder, taking on the party establishment so decisively would mean an end to any larger ambition, and everyone who was asked, beginning with Robert Kennedy, said no. Only McCarthy, after much shuffling of feet, said yes. To this day it's hard to know why. The announcement of his candidacy was typically diffident. Appearing before the press in the Senate Caucus Room, he never used the words "candidate" or even "nomination." He said only that he would put the antiwar position "before the people," to see how they would respond.

A campaign poster from 1968 showed a bird's-eye photo of McCarthy standing by himself in an otherwise empty plaza patterned in brick. The legend read: "He Stood Up Alone and Something Happened." Well, yes. McCarthy nearly beat Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later Kennedy joined the race. Two weeks after that, Johnson dropped out. Three weeks later, Humphrey became a candidate and eventually, in the riot-riven convention that August, his party's nominee. At the end of the year, Kennedy was dead, Johnson was exiled to ignominious retirement, Richard Nixon was president-elect--and according to a national poll, among people under the age of twenty-four Eugene McCarthy was the most popular man in America.

IN A WAY--to return to today's headlines and parallel-drawing--Howard Dean's mobilization of a large army of young volunteers is more impressive than McCarthy's. In the 1960s politics had not yet earned the dismal reputation it enjoys today, when it appears to most Americans, young and old, as not merely irrelevant but, worse, the exclusive domain of hobbyists and cranks, in thrall to the bellowing narcissists who strut across the sets of "Hardball" and "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Hannity and Colmes." Unless you have a natural taste for it, politics in the age of cable and blogs must seem as cultic as a "Star Trek" convention--and what sensible person, watching a foam-flecked debate over the relative merits of Spock and Bones, would want to be a Trekkie? Yet somehow from this slough of indifference Dean has conjured passion and excitement, and he has done so among a class of people who might otherwise have been thought to have better things to do, like study.

Mccarthy had an easier time of it. Thanks to the military draft, politics had a built-in relevance for young people, especially young men, in 1968; if they couldn't end the war in Vietnam by "working within the system" and "participating in the political process," there was a reasonable chance they would be sent to a jungle very far away and get shot. Such a prospect imposes its own kind of urgency. And when McCarthy presented himself as the only plausible vehicle for altering the course of the war, tens of thousands quite understandably signed up. These weren't just Johnson's political opponents, these young folk, they were his potential victims. The Children's Crusade was an act of self-defense.

But not wholly self-defense, of course. Anyone who's ever worked on a political campaign before the age of, say, twenty-four knows where the real interest lies, and it's not in a "serious discussion of the issues in hopes of advancing a progressive agenda for the future of this country" or whatever. It's the cold pizza at four A.M., it's the naps stolen on the headquarters floor, it's the fast friendships, it's the sex--real if you're lucky, hypothetical otherwise. It's the best of dorm life, and no classes the next morning. It is like this in every Children's Crusade, in 1968 no less than in 2004.

Yet there are more substantial similarities between then and now. McCarthy saw, as Dean later did, that in the view of many party members the party establishment had grown flaccid and corrupt. Analysts marvel that so many of Dean's supporters seem unaware of his political positions, if not flatly opposed to them. McCarthy is remembered today as an antiwar candidate, and of course he was, but in 1968, polls in New Hampshire and elsewhere showed that a large minority of his voters, especially older ones, either misunderstood his position on Vietnam or disagreed with it. What they did understand was that he wasn't Lyndon Johnson. He offered a way around a distant political apparatus that had disengaged from the people to whom it was theoretically beholden. The mismanagement of the Vietnam War from Washington was just one sign of the disconnection. Johnson and Humphrey, in their day, had no sense of this free-floating disenchantment, and Gephardt and Kerry couldn't see it in theirs. McCarthy did, and so did Dean.

And there the parallels draw to a close. You can't think about political insurgencies too long before you come up against the character of the insurgents themselves, and in this regard Dean fares less well in the comparisons--or perhaps better, depending on your taste.

THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, when the professorial mood was upon him (as it often was), McCarthy had called for "the de-personalization of politics"--a phrase that sounded just as pompous then as it does now, but which nonetheless expressed a thought-through belief about how self-government should work. McCarthy thought institutions deserved more care and attention than the men who run them, and that a political campaign should be bigger than its candidate. His favorite politician, he said, was Edmund Burke--pompous again, may- be, but revealing. His reticence seemed principled as well as personal. He attended Mass every day, for example, yet never spoke in public of his private faith--a blessed contrast to candidates who seldom go to services yet won't shut up about how much religion means to them. McCarthy despised charisma, deemed it dangerous and undemocratic--Bobby Kennedy horrified him, partly for this reason--and his disdain, paradoxically, made him all the more charismatic. When he campaigned in 1968 huge crowds would greet him, rafter-swinging crowds, roof-raising, thunderous crowds, and he would refuse to amplify the enthusiasm that poured over him. He never played to the crowd. The crowd loved him for it.

"Crusading zeal," Sandbrook correctly writes, "was not merely something with which McCarthy felt uncomfortable; it was also something he regarded as irrational and insidious."

THE CAMPAIGN was inevitably bizarre. The candidate declined to hire a professional campaign manager, for one thing. In a nine-month slog, he never once spoke from a prepared text. The larger and more important his audience, the duller and longer his speech would be. He stoutly resisted the grand gesture. A big break came when he appeared on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, who asked whether he thought he'd be a good president. "I think," McCarthy said after a pause, "that I would be adequate." When Johnson withdrew from the campaign, reporters rushed McCarthy for a comment, an occasion to rally the troops: "Things have gotten rather complicated," he said, and left it at that. Why didn't more blacks vote for him, a columnist once asked. "I don't know," he said. "I haven't really made much of an argument that they should." Early on he abandoned that staple of industrial-state politicking--greeting the sunrise shift at factory gates--because, he explained, "I'm not really a morning person." At fundraisers he would routinely appear, shake a few hands, then retire to the bar.

His idiosyncrasies wore badly on the few professionals on his staff. "Even Caesar could kiss the ass of somebody who would be useful to his cause," said one, "but not Gene." They blamed laziness, personal pique, selfishness--the same motives that, thirty-five years later, his biographer ascribes to him. And McCarthy was waspish indeed. But there was more to it than that. He didn't like pressing the flesh, it's true, especially at factory gates at sun-up, but he campaigned twenty hours at a stretch when he had to, and though his showcase speeches were invariably dull, in small groups, in living rooms and church basements, he would reach for eloquence and often find it. He didn't make special plays for black votes--or farm votes, or factory votes--because "I will speak the same to all." When Kennedy boasted that his state-of-the-art campaign had assembled more than thirty advisory committees, each assigned to a specific demographic subset of the general population, McCarthy was agog. "I knew that Baskin-Robbins had thirty-one flavors of ice cream," he said. "I hadn't known there were thirty-one different types of American."

The political professionals got him wrong. Norman Mailer, a political idiot, came closer to the truth when he saw in McCarthy's diffidence a hint of "the most serious conservative to run for nomination since Robert Taft." The British journalist Henry Fairlie called him "the nearest thing there is to Calvin Coolidge." Barry Goldwater considered him one of his favorite politicians--"a gentleman and a scholar, who has done things in a calm and reasonable way." There was enough emotional gas in the air in 1968, McCarthy later said, without him trying to light a match to set it off.

"Calm and reasonable" is not, of course, the style of our present politics--and certainly not of the leader of our latest Children's Crusade. It is impossible to imagine McCarthy in one of Dean's artery-popping harangues. For that matter, it is impossible to imagine him uttering any of the oily self-advertisements that have become essential to the modern campaign. Think of George W. Bush in 2000: "I'm a very compassionate person"; or John McCain, the same year: "I just get very angry about social injustice--I'm sorry, but it's who I am." Of course, as Dean supporters will point out, the things that made McCarthy appealing to many people were inextricable from, maybe identical to, the things that made him a loser: the ambivalence and cool detachment, the irony and wit, the range of learning and intellectual curiosity. His detractors always said that McCarthy thought he was too good for politics. His admirers thought he was right to think that.

WHAT EFFECT did this first Children's Crusade have? Did it--to ask the most obvious question--meet its intended object of hastening the end of the war? Sandbrook, in this new biography, says no, and he's probably right. Then he goes a step further to say that it actually lengthened the war, by crippling Humphrey's chance for election and clearing the way for Nixon's narrow victory--an absurd claim. Nixon, always with one eye on reelection, made sure to have most of the troops out by 1972 and damn the larger consequences (just as, in 1971, he imposed wage and price controls to stymie inflation till the ballots were safely counted a year later, leaving his successors to reap the inflationary whirlwind). It is not at all certain that Humphrey, an enthusiastic supporter of the war from the start, would have wrapped things up so hastily. Even McCarthy suggested during the campaign--in his typically desultory fashion: kind of here and there, sort of once in a while--that under his own peace plan some U.S. soldiers might have to remain in Vietnam for five more years.

Undeniably, however, the 1968 Crusade hastened the self-destruction of the Democratic party's old regime, as it existed under Lyndon Johnson. In political parties old regimes are always being destroyed and replaced by new regimes that then grow old themselves, to be destroyed and replaced in their turn, and by now, after three and a half decades, the layers of rubble are too deep to trace a line of influence from McCarthy's campaign to the Democratic party's present condition. Yet the havoc of 1968 did inspire wholesale reform of the party's system for selecting convention delegates. By design the new rules removed power from the party's professionals and placed it squarely in the hands of the dewy-eyed innocents who nominated George McGovern four years later.

At least one electoral catastrophe, therefore, can be traced to McCarthy's Crusade. And maybe more. As Sandbrook points out, the McCarthy campaign also foreshadowed the party's separation from its traditional bedrock constituency--Southern whites and blue-collar males--in favor of the rich liberals, college professors, graduate students, and childless yuppies who became the most reliable constituencies of many subsequent campaigns: John Anderson's, Gary Hart's, Michael Dukakis's.

As it happens, these look to be Howard Dean's most reliable constituencies, too. If Dean wants to know where a crusade like his is headed, he can always ask McCarthy, who is (wonderful to say) still alive and thriving, dividing his time between a retirement home in Georgetown and his farm in the Virginia Piedmont. The number's in the book if the doctor wants to make the call.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.