Sen. Eugene McCarthy remembered

Russell Baker, David Frost, Larry King, Gloria Steinem, Tip O'Neill and others recall their encounters with the legendary senator.

By Dana Cook
Published December 12, 2005 8:19PM (EST)

John Kenneth Galbraith, economist and diplomat
Aloof polymath

His office walls were monastically unadorned. So was the furniture. He sat in back of his desk with the light behind him, rather remote, one thought, from the manifold trivia of the day. Or so it seemed that morning. His desk too was bare, for Gene, both out of principle and distaste, did not do much work.

I had known Gene, though far from intimately, from his first weeks in the House of Representatives. Henry Reuss of Wisconsin, my OPA [Office of Price Administration] colleague, friend and long-time congressman from Milwaukee, had then invited me to dinner to meet him, describing him as the most diversely talented man -- economist, poet, teacher, philosopher -- to be elected to the Congress in many years. (Washington, D.C., 1949)

From "A Life in Our Times," by John Kenneth Galbraith (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)

Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, U.S. representative and House speaker (1976-1986)
Whimsical fellow

I knew Gene from the House of Representatives, where he had served all through the 1950s before being elected to the Senate. When the bells rang for a roll call, a group of us who all had offices on the same corridor would walk over to the floor of the House ... we'd pick up Gene, who would join us if he wasn't writing poetry or reading a book. He was a whimsical fellow who would come over only if he happened to feel like it.

... I respected him, even though he was lazy and a bit of a dreamer. He was also a loner. For a guy who wanted to be president, he never really worked the streets by asking for help from organizational types like me. Instead, he made his move outside the regular party structure. (Washington, D.C., early 1950s)

From "Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill," by Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill with William Novack (Random House, 1987)

Russell Baker, columnist
Genuine wit

I was really surprised to discover that Gene McCarthy also wanted to be president. A canny veteran of the House of Representatives, McCarthy was elected to the Senate in 1958. I took to him right away. A Catholic intellectual and that rarest of creatures in American politics, a genuine wit, he was a delight to consult on the problem of the day. Talking presidential politics one day in the Senate dining room, he said, "If the Democrats are going to run a Catholic liberal, they ought to nominate me; I'm twice as liberal as Humphrey and twice as Catholic as Kennedy."

I thought, Hey, he's not kidding. (Washington, D.C., late 1950s)

From "The Good Times," by Russell Baker (William Morrow, 1989)

Joseph Alsop, columnist
More Catholic than Kennedy

I had made friends with the Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy and his wife of those days, Abby. They were wonderful company, constantly enlivening, and I, as always, liked having them as guests at Dumbarton Avenue. Thus, I was aware that the senator was anything but enthusiastic about the Kennedy campaign. What stuck in his craw, I think, was that Kennedy was the first Catholic candidate to be taken seriously for the presidency, whereas he, McCarthy, a far more devout Catholic than Kennedy and, thus, a much more suitable representative of the Church if there was to be any Catholic candidate at all, was being snubbed. (Washington, D.C., 1959)

From "I've Seen the Best of It: Memoirs," by Joseph Alsop (Norton, 1992)

David Frost, TV show host (BBC)
Faddish columnists

By the time I met Senator McCarthy at 2 p.m., there was something in his demeanour that suggested that good news [about the New Hampshire presidential primary] was just around the corner.

Did the Senator generally recognize the picture of himself in the press, or did he sometimes feel it was of a different person?

The reply was vintage McCarthy. "Well, some of them I think have read me pretty well, but they run in fads here, especially the columnists. I'm not sure that the column is a really good device -- it calls for a kind of short-range, rash judgement -- especially when they write three columns a week. Three rash judgements a week are really too much to expect of anybody. If one does it, the other is hard pressed and likely to pick up the same themes; so they go around in circles. Then they'll change the line, and we say it's like blackbirds on the telephone line here in the fall. If one flies away, they all fly away. If one comes back, they all come back." (Manchester, N.H., 1968)

From "An Autobiography," by David Frost (HarperCollins, 1993)

Irving Howe, academic, critic and editor
No political leader

The McCarthy campaign provided me with my first chance for wholehearted electoral work since my undistinguished soapboxing for Norman Thomas. It was a pleasure to speak, write, even raise money. Once Gene McCarthy lost the nomination, however, he seemed permanently to lose his bearings. He went into a prolonged sulk, abandoning his seat in the Senate as well as the thousands who had rallied behind him and who, had he persisted, might have formed the basis for a renewed liberalism. Some disastrous streak of cultural snobbism or intellectual perversity overtook this very intelligent man. The several times I met McCarthy I was impressed by his charm and lively mind, but whatever it is that goes to make a political leader -- strength of will, self-assurance, sheer hard work -- he didn't have. Still, in 1968 his campaign led one to hope that we could bring the [Vietnam] war to an end through action within the democratic process. (New York, 1968)

From "A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography," by Irving Howe (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982)

Willie Morris, editor of Harper's magazine
Tough enough?

Into this [anti-Vietnam War political] vacuum in early '68 stepped Eugene McCarthy and his young "Clean for Gene" liberals. McCarthy, the wry and reluctant crusader, tapped a pervasive need. At a benefit "celebrity" softball game on Long Island later in that year, with McCarthy and me teammates, he collided head-on with the opponent's catcher at home plate to score a run; blood streaming from his nose, this rueful and ironic intellectual got up and, brushing off the dirt, remarked to me in the on-deck circle, "And they say I'm not tough enough." He was a very good ballplayer too. (1968)

From "New York Days," by Willie Morris (Little Brown, 1993)

Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP

I respected Eugene McCarthy and his courage in bucking L.B.J. on the Vietnam War; he had been with us on many civil rights fights, and I liked him personally, but he was no [Hubert] Humphrey. We had a little run-in during the N.A.A.C.P. convention. He invited himself down to Atlantic City [N.J.] and stayed at a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge about seven blocks from our convention hall. At the time, a group of N.A.A.C.P. dissidents calling themselves the "Young Turks" was putting me through the wringer on the N.A.A.C.P.'s program, and the last thing I needed was for the presidential campaign to spill over into the convention. The Young Turks were a lot older than their name suggested, and in the end I had little trouble dealing with them. When McCarthy sent in his operatives, I had to sit on them, too. It made for some hard feelings. (1968)

From "Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins," by Roy Wilkins with Tom Mathews (Viking, 1982)

Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine and neoconservative guru
Culturally sophisticated

The first time I met him, the day he showed up for our lunch appointment carrying a volume of Robert Lowell's poems, he indicated that he was thinking of challenging Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in the New Hampshire primary on the issue of Vietnam, and he wanted to know what I thought of the idea.

This obviously sophisticated interest in culture -- in religion and poetry and the world of ideas -- was what made McCarthy's intelligence so different from Lyndon Johnson's and George McGovern's. Highly intelligent as they both were, they both also had minds that were focused too narrowly on conventional electoral politics to sense what was happening in the culture and how it was already beginning to impinge on the sphere of politics itself. But McCarthy, uniquely attuned among politicians as he was to the culture and its relation to the electoral process -- why else had he sought out a person like me for advice? -- saw before anyone else that a new wave was sweeping through the liberal community that might even turn out to be powerful enough to wash Lyndon Johnson's administration away; and he decided to ride it. (New York, 1968)

From "Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir," by Norman Podhoretz (Harper & Row, 1979)

Gloria Steinem, journalist and feminist
Clerk at Household Finance

With three other volunteer writers, all of us working on a newspaper supplement for the [1968 Democratic presidential] primary states, I met McCarthy at the St. Regis. Each of us asked questions about the senator's areas of strength in order to get quotes for the supplement. And after each question, McCarthy would turn to campaign manager Blair Clark or to a young press aide and say, "I think we talked about that in a Senate speech," or "Remember the piece Look didn't publish? Get them that." We asked and asked. We turned ourselves inside out with asking. (Somewhere, there is a tape of this fiasco that could be sold as a comedy record.) But we got not one spontaneous reply. Finally, I hit on a question that he couldn't have written about yet. How did this New Hampshire primary differ from his past congressional campaigns? "It doesn't," he said flatly. "They're exactly the same."

Spiritually speaking, McCarthy reminds me of the distinguished-looking clerk at Household Finance who used to lean back, put the tips of his fingers together in a steeple, and say to my father, "No, you can't have a loan." (New York, 1968)

From "Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions," by Gloria Steinem (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983)

Knowlton Nash, broadcast journalist
Awkward campaigner

The 1968 New Hampshire primary ... a legendary campaign. McCarthy trumpeted his anti-Vietnam politics ten and twenty times a day at factory gates, coffee parties, schools and churches, on the streets, and on the air. In an interview [for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], he told me, "In the name of God, the killing must end."

He was an awkward campaigner. He felt and looked embarrassed every time he stuck out his hand to say to a stranger, "Hi, I'm Gene McCarthy." "I really don't like doing that," he told me, "but I guess I have to." At one point he went into the wrong factory and the owner ordered him out. At other factories he'd wander up and down aisles, smiling hesitantly and diffidently saying hello to workers bending over their machines. In one plant where I walked with him, he almost clutched me in gratitude at having someone with him whom he had seen before. He seemed so alone and unsure as he moved along, hesitatingly looking for which way to go, and breathing a sigh of relief when it was all over. It was agony for him. (New Hampshire, 1968)

From "History on the Run: The Trenchcoat Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent," by Knowlton Nash (McClelland and Stewart, 1984)

Larry King, TV talk show host
.342 in Iowa League

I don't know what sort of president Eugene McCarthy would have made, because he's sort of lazy, but he has a wonderful sense of humor and poetry, and he's a great baseball fan. In fact, he played semipro ball and hit .342 in the Iowa League one year.

I had a lot of fun discussing the 1968 campaign with him. I don't think anyone changed America more than he did at the time, when he challenged President Johnson in New Hampshire and almost won. (Washington, D.C., late 1960s)

From "Tell It to the King," by Larry King with Peter Occhiogrosso (Thorndike Press/G.P. Putnam's, 1988)

William Corbett, author
Hollow noises

He rounded the corner of a friend's house in Vermont. It was 1974. I was thirty-one and as eager to impress as I was to be impressed. McCarthy didn't stint me. We talked of baseball, boxing and Yeats' late revisions. He told me stories about the Kennedys and described a lunch with Henry Kissinger. Had I never met him again I could have vouched for his charm, intelligence and gift for flattery. But I did meet him again for dinner twice at the same house.

What disturbed me was that McCarthy had repeated himself in such a way that it was clear he no longer heard what he was saying, could no longer imagine the effect his stories might have on his listeners. I assume he told these stories at many similar evenings to many other people who could offer nothing of their own in return. He remained charming and polished as only politicians (I have now met two or three) can be, but he was making hollow noises.

From "Brushes With Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters With Celebrities," by Russell Banks, Michael Ondaatje and David Young, eds. (Big Bang Books/Coach House Press, 1989)

Joan Rivers, comedian and TV show host

Eugene McCarthy, another guest [on "Show of Shows"], seemed terribly sad to me. He was a fumbler, a mumbler, indecisive, with very little to say. I thought, This is the man we're going to give the leadership of the country? (Los Angeles, 1986)

From "Still Talking," by Joan Rivers with Richard Meryman (Turtle Bay Books/Random House, 1991)

Dana Cook

Dana Cook is a Toronto freelance editor and literary ambulance chaser. His collage portraits of Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Saul Bellow and Hunter S. Thompson have appeared previously in Salon.


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