Eugene McCarthy - A Tribute
By George Mitrovich
10 December 2005
I’m a Kennedy person to the core of my soul but I loved Eugene McCarthy. The news of his death at 89 led me to write the following tribute and remembrance:
My friendship with Senator Eugene McCarthy began after the ’68 presidential campaign. In that campaign I was a press aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Senator McCarthy was seen as a noble knight, who had done what others lacked the moral courage to do, take on a sitting president. Senator Kennedy was seen as a rank opportunist. As you can well imagine, between the two campaigns, little love was lost. While the two senators were often in the same city on the same day campaigning for the same votes, I never met Eugene McCarthy, nor had any particular interest in meeting him, such was my devotion to Bobby. Indeed, politics being politics, our campaign was always gleeful whenever Bobby drew larger crowds than "Clean Gene” – which was almost always.
Later, with Senator Kennedy dead of an assassin's bullet and with all of us who loved Bobby in great disarray and pain, I made a decision to do what I had planned – to move my family to Washington, as we had anticipated doing under a second Kennedy Administration.
I began working on Capitol Hill, and in due course I begin inviting a small group of journalists and politicians to join me for lunch in one of the Senate’s private dining rooms. They came, not because they found me irresistible, I was merely the agent of their coming together, but they knew, due to the presence of some truly interesting people, it would be an engaging and provocative time. Senator McCarthy became a regular at those luncheons – which were held every three or four week over a three-year period. When I left The Hill in mid-Summer of ’73 and went home to California I would revisit Washington four or five times a year. On each occasion I would reassemble our group – and Gene McCarthy was almost always there.
In the 30-year history of The City Club of San Diego and the 20 years of The Denver Forum, with the exceptions of Richard Reeves, Alan Simpson, and George Plimpton, Gene McCarthy was our most frequent guest. Between the two public forums, he graced us with his presence more than 20 times.
On one occasion I asked him to speak to a select audience of City Club members. We met over lunch in a Mexican café in San Diego’s Old Town section. I had asked him to do one thing, and one thing only that day – to read his works of poetry. He did so with telling effect. I would guess no one who was there will ever forget that moment; that moment when we were privileged to listen to one of the most unique individuals to ever rise to the top of American politics – as surely he did as a Member of Congress, United States Senator, and candidate for President of the United States.
On another City Club occasion, on a day when then California Governor Jerry Brown was speaking to The City Club at noon and Senator McCarthy at a dinner that night, the senator came to the lunch and the political buzz in the more than 700 in attendance was striking. Watching one of the older lions of American politics and the prince in waiting was fascinating to behold. That night the senator spoke to more then 300 people and the contrast between the two, the governor and the senator, is something not easily forgotten. (This isn’t exactly the place for it, but I can’t help but noting that very few public forums would have attempted what we did that day – two major events with two major national political figures. But somehow we pulled it off. It remains one of our more significant achievements.)
On one of his appearances before The Denver Forum I paired him with John Lindsay, the former Mayor of New York City – and like the senator an opponent of the Vietnam War. I don’t believe that had happened before, McCarthy and Lindsay sharing a program, and I don’t know if it ever happened again, but that it happened at The Denver Forum has special meaning to me – to have been permitted to have been the instrument of its occurrence.
The last time I saw the senator was more than two years ago at one of those Capitol Hill luncheons of mine. Marty Schram, the syndicated columnist, agreed to pick the senator up and bring him to The Hill. Melody Miller of Senator Kennedy’s staff arranged with the Capitol Police to allow the senator and Marty to drive under the east steps of the Senate so that the senator would have a short walk to our dining room. He was not well physically, but his mind was as sharp as ever – and his humorous asides on politics and certain politicians were as hilarious as ever. It was a mostly Washington crowd at the luncheon, save for three people – Charles Steinberg and Sarah McKenna of the Boston Red Sox and Marc Joyce, a city councilman in Holyoke, Mass. and a Massachusetts state official and father of Katie Joyce, a young legislative aide to John Kerry (Katie had performed brilliantly in helping us get for Jackie Robinson, posthumously, the Congressional Gold Medal). Charles, Sarah, and Marc have never forgotten the privilege that was theirs that day – and ours. Indeed, Charles and Sarah have often mentioned their memories of that luncheon, and Marc later sent me a lovely note saying the occasion had been one of the great moments of his life. Eugene McCarthy could do that to you.
While I wouldn’t see him again we often visited by phone. On those occasions, even when he was struggling physically, his mind was clear and his humor unrelenting.
The senator, as is well known, had a very acerbic side, which some people found off-putting, but I found endlessly amusing. He had a certain disdain for the high and mighty, which no true democrat could help but treasure. Former Senator Bill Hathaway of Maine told me he loved going to lunch at the Palms in Washington with Senator McCarthy because he knew it would be a wonderfully funny time, that Eugene would have such interesting things to say about others. But I often left those luncheons, Senator Hathaway said, wondering what he said about me when I wasn’t there? Fair question, but in the end neither Bill Hathaway nor I would trade the moments we were privileged to have had in Eugene McCarthy’s presence – so transcendent a person was he in oh so many, many ways.
In that context let me share this story:
In the fall of ’71 our luncheon group came together in the Hugh Scott Room of the Capitol. The regulars were there – Dick Reeves, Richard O’Hagan from the Canadian Embassy, Charles Wheeler of the BBC, Robin McNeil of PBS, Nick von Hoffman of The Washington Post, Dan Rather, then the CBS White House correspondence, Frank Mankiewicz, who had been Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary; Bob Novak of Evans-Novak fame, Democratic Congressman Tom Rees from California, Izzy Stone of I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and Senator McCarthy.
I was then Senator Harold Hughes’ press secretary and the senator had made a short run for president but bowed out when he was quoted in the Des Moines Register as saying he frequently “talked with his dead brother.” This created a sizeable flap and the senator quit the race, which was too bad because a lot of people were attracted to Senator Hughes, a man with the build of an NFL linebacker and a voice that one could imagine being like the voice of God. Having a voice like God’s was good politics but talking to your dead brother was not only bad politics, but widely viewed as weird. So Senator Hughes left the race and a year later George McGovern became the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.
In the middle of our luncheon, Senator McCarthy, sitting directly across from me, got one of those looks in his eye, and said, “The real reason Harold Hughes left the presidential race was because he believed his ability to talk to his dead brother gave him an unfair advantage over the other Democratic candidates.” Everyone in the room, including me, erupted in laughter. Those sometime wicked witticisms of Senator McCarthy may not have been viewed by all as endearing, but they were also unforgettable traits of his persona – and as long as you were not their target, hugely amusing.
Over the years I can recall several things he said to me, both endearing and otherwise:
One concerned the game of baseball, which the senator loved and played. He told me, “Baseball is a game for intellectuals.” Later I would repeat his statement to my daughter, Carolyn. Her response, referring to where the San Diego Padres then played, “Obviously Senator McCarthy has never sat in the left field bleachers ay Qualcomm Stadium.”
Then he said this about one of his Senate colleagues, William Proxmire of Wisconsin: “Bill takes pride in the fact that he has never missed a Senate vote. Can you imagine a more worthless claim? A senator who has never missed a roll call vote should find something more constructive to do with his life.”
If memory serves me best the senator Senator McCarthy most admired was Phil Hart of Michigan (for whom a Senate office building is now named). He was greatly saddened by Senator Hart’s death. Eugene McCarthy didn’t evidence public emotions very often (I should add within the context of our friendship), but clearly he had a deep regard for the senator from Michigan.
In an unrelated story the senator and I were in Aspen. He had come to Denver to speak to The Forum and we had then flown to Aspen, where he repeated his remarks at a Denver Forum in Aspen luncheon. Afterwards we were walking down the street and ran into Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes. We had a nice chat with Mr. Bradley and continued our walk. The next person we met was Abner Mikva, a very liberal former Democratic Congressman from Illinois, but at that time a judge of the US Circuit Court in Washington, DC (things like that happen in Aspen in the summertime, you meet a lot of people you might not encounter in other American places). Well, this wasn’t so pleasant, because Judge Mikva gave the senator hell for having endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980. I was quite taken aback by this, the obvious anger evidenced by the judge, the accusation that Senator McCarthy’s endorsement had hurt the Democrats, maybe even tipped the election, but Senator McCarthy responded in a most gracious manner, given the awkward circumstances. Nothing was ever said about that moment again, but I have sometimes wondered why the senator did that, endorsed Mr. Reagan? (Sorry, I don’t have a satisfactory answer.)
For several years I ran The City Club of Los Angeles, but doing three public forums was too much and, in the end, I decided I couldn’t do it, so I stopped. But before that happened we had a luncheon one day in a restaurant off little Santa Monica Blvd. in West LA. Senator McCarthy was our speaker, but I had invited former Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown to attend the event. Neither the senator nor the governor had seen one another in a very long time, and there had been some bad political moments between them, but on that day all was forgotten. The governor and senator were friends again. Watching these two giants of American politics – Pat Brown was the best governor in the history of California (Ronald Reagan was, at best, a distance second) – come together again, enjoying one another’s company, sharing funny political stories, was a wonderfully special moment.
The number of American politicians, unlike their British counterparts, who can write and write well, who have the talent sufficient to write poetry and carry it off with style, who have deeply philosophical leanings, who have thought long and hard about the meaning of the Christian faith in their life, as did Eugene McCarthy, are few. I can’t remember all of the times I was with him – in Washington, Denver, Aspen, Los Angeles, and San Diego – but I can tell you the cumulative effect of all those occasions will stay with me the rest of my life.
Lastly, let me say this: I began by saying that I am a Kennedy person to the core of my soul, and I am. The time I work for Robert F. Kennedy in the campaign of ’68 had a profound impact on my life. I shall ever be grateful for that privilege, for those experiences – and for the friendships formed in that crucible – Peter Edelman, Adam Walinsky, Dick Tuck, Bill Berry, Frank Mankiewicz, Dick Drayne, Melody Miller, among many others. But the hard truth is not many Kennedy people ever got close to Eugene McCarthy – or wanted to (I think it’s an Irish “thing”). I did not start out seeking a friendship with Senator McCarthy, but it happened. In that I am a lucky man – a very lucky man, indeed.
May the God of love and grace be with the departed soul of Eugene McCarthy, and with his family, his friends, and his admirers – the wide world over.
We shall not see his likeness again.
Postscript – Memorial Service, National Cathedral
Saturday, January 14, a memorial service was held in Senator McCarthy’s memory at Washington’s National Cathedral. Eight hundred people attended the service, which lasted two hours. Those who gathered included many who had gone “clean for Gene” in the presidential campaign of ’68. Not a few who came traveled from across the land – from California, Oregon and Washington. They came to pay their respects to a man who had changed the politics of America, who had risked his political career to stand against the President of the United States, to lend his moral witness against the consuming evil of his time – the Vietnam War.
Some reading this, given the political history of ‘68, the entry of Robert F. Kennedy into the presidential race and the angry reaction of Senator McCarthy’s followers to what they saw as Kennedy’s rank opportunism, might be surprised to know that among the first to arrive at the Cathedral was Senator and Mrs. Edward Kennedy. But if you’re among those surprised, you shouldn’t be. Senator Kennedy, when informed of Senator McCarthy’s passing, had paid an eloquent and moving tribute to his life.
At the service President Clinton delivered the principal eulogy. He told a wonderful story of how, as a young college student from Arkansas he had come to Washington to work in behalf of the Amendment to End the War, was invited to a formal party, but had no dress shoes (as he said, he was a college kid from Arkansas). Mr. Clinton said I have big feet and I couldn’t find anyone whose shoe size was equal to mine, then Senator McCarthy came along and offered me his. Mr. Clinton then added, “In a real sense every national Democrat since has walked in Senator McCarthy’s shoes.”
However, the person who had the greatest impact upon those at the National Cathedral was not Mr. Clinton, but Mary Alice Williams, a child of the Minnesota plains, who grew up a friend of Senator McCarthy’s daughter, Ellen. Her delivery was skillful, even at times dramatic, as you might expect from someone with a long and distinguished television career. But the greater impression was not her delivery, powerful though it was, but the evidence of words lovingly crafted – by her own hand.
Ms. Williams’ moment of greatest impact came when she said, with the timbre of her voice rising and her emotions ebbing beyond control, “Christians are not called to judge the world but to save it!” Those words, weighed against the dominant and corrupting influence of Right Wing Christian Fundamentalism over the national political dialogue, sent a shiver through the crowd. It was a reminder to those present that Senator McCarthy stood for a different kind of Christian faith, one that embraced all of God’s children, that reached out, not in judgment, as Mary Alice said, but in love.
Ellen McCarthy and her brother, Michael, also spoke lovingly of their father, remembering him as a man of conscience, who sought to bring to American governance a different kind of political ethic and sense of social justice, even of moral repugnance. But amid all his responsibilities, they said, he never lost sight of his primary duty – to be their father.
From the beginning of the service, which saw members of the Senator’s family following down the Cathedral’s great center aisle behind a lonely bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace”, to the Benediction by Very Reverend John Bryson Chane, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, the service was memorable in ways not easily conveyed through the written word (at least not in my uncertain hands).
Senator McCarthy once told his son, Michael, that everyone should have the right to read their obituaries before they die and make the necessary changes. Well that doesn’t happen, but Eugene McCarthy, looking down from wherever heaven is, would have been reassured by the words spoken, the singing of hymns, poetry read, scriptures intoned, prayers offered, and sermon preached – all in tribute to his remarkable life. And all of which took place in one of the few places in our land worthy of such a service and of such a man – Washington’s National Cathedral.
Lastly, what the memorial service did for me was to serve as a forceful reminder that public men must be judged by their public actions, not their private doubts. The history of the War in Vietnam is the sordid history of public men saying one thing in public and something very different in private; one thing for Huntley-Brinkley and another for the benefit of their social equals at fancy Georgetown dinner parties.
Vietnam, from Lyndon Johnson to Robert McNamara to Dean Rusk to Clark Clifford, is the story of men who lied in public and sought to save face in private; who recorded in diaries and private papers their misgivings over the war while remaining publicly mute about those misgivings; who sought to persuade Americans the war was worthy of fighting, even while knowing they didn’t believe their own public utterances. And while they played out this terrible deception, this monumental duplicity, 58,000 young Americans died and thousands more were wounded; many of whom still wander our streets – disoriented in mind, broken in body, bent low in spirit, alienated and alone in a nation they served with courage and honor.
Vietnam was the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place, prosecuted by “leaders” of historical ignorance, twisted logic and immoral impulses. Over against their corrupted souls and corroded minds stood Eugene McCarthy, a man who had the courage to act in public as he believed in private – and he believed the Vietnam War was neither just nor moral. For that Eugene Joseph McCarthy, poet and philosopher, public servant and father, is owed the nation’s gratitude – and our incalculable debt.