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.