So, Clean Gene is gone, slipping away at age eighty-nine. The death of Senator Eugene McCarthy on Saturday has already touched the newspapers and Sunday morning political-talk shows with the usual obituary momentthe obligatory hiccup of reflection in which everyone old enough to remember pauses for a moment to realize that we have no real explanation for how we got here from all the way back there.
No explanation, that is, but time and the slow fading of what once seemed so important. Erosion can sometimes make things clearer, as biographers all know: washing away the incidental, exposing the deeper structure of a landscape. But mostly erosion obscures the details and thins down the emotions that once made it all seem so alive. The talking heads on the Sunday programs clearly remembered they had felt deeply about Eugene McCarthy, but their faces showed a strange puzzlement, as though they couldn't quite remember exactly what it was they had felt so deeply, those long years ago.
McCarthy's own face often showed a similar puzzlementnot just in his final years, when one could often see him at lunch in Washington restaurants and sit to talk with him a little about politics and Catholic philosophy, but back during his campaign for president in 1968, as well. The puzzle was visible even in the 1950s, early in political career, when he was promoted by Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, the machine that seemed to emerge from nowhere to fill the national political scene with the likes of Orville Freeman, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondaleas impressive a run of national Democrats in a brief period as the nation has ever seen from a second-tier state (particularly if we add to the roster George McGovern and his own protégé Tom Daschle, in neighboring third-tier South Dakota, whom the Minnesotans inspired and guided).
At the 1960 Democratic convention, as John Kennedy solidified his nomination victory over Stuart Symington and Lyndon Johnson, the high liberals of the Eleanor Roosevelt type let their unhappiness issue in a last-minute boom for Adlai Stevenson. And to the platform to nominate Stevenson strode the young Senator McCarthy: "Do not turn away from this man. He spoke to the people. He moved their minds and stirred their hearts," he declaimed. "Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party." Written, McCarthy later claimed, in only a few minutes, it was one of the best convention speeches ever given, and it brought the delegates to their feet with a roar. But it was also a speech in a hopeless cause, delivered in full and wry knowledge of its quixotic purpose. The delegates promptly returned to their seats and voted for Kennedy. This was the same convention at which McCarthy irritated his political elders by joking that he should be the Democrats' nominee for president: "I'm twice as smart as Symington, twice as honest as Johnson, and twice as Catholic as Kennedy."
The bifurcated impulses never went away, and by the time he ran for president in 1968, his division into two people had grown nearly complete. Of course, in an insane situation, the mark of genuine sanity may be a good dash of insanity: Nobody but a nut could stay fully sane when things start to get really crazy, and politics in 1968 were about as crazy as American politics can get. In a world of partial men, Gene McCarthy managed to be a more complete man by keeping himself a little divided.
Last year, in an amazingly good review of the nasty little biography Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism, the Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson took this lineand convincingly. "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," Ferguson explained.
After seminary, he tried his hand at farming, then took a job teaching economics at a Catholic college in Minnesotawhich, 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 Humphreyand like Harry Truman, their national leaderMcCarthy 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...
Eugene McCarthy was not a great political figureor not, at least, one of the greatest, who find a way to reach past the self-division to find a higher unitybut he was better than most, and it's unfair to his memory to turn his obituary moment into a rant about politics now. Still, remembering him does raise all the questions of how we got here from there: questions, in fact, of Gene McCarthy's partial responsibility for the change.
Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Perhaps the most fascinating political story of the twentieth century is how and why the Democratic partythe home of serious and genuinely Catholic politicians and votersreformed itself around a pro-abortion platform, and nobody has yet given the full account.
Commonweal magazine recently pointed out some of the intra-party process, in an interesting piece by Mark Stricherz. And last year Michael Novak used the publication of Scott Stossel's Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver as an occasion to reminisce about his time as a Democratic party campaigner.
"At a factory gate, on one occasion, I watched one of the advance team hand out flyers in a see-through blouse, a miniskirt, high boots, and a big red 'Abortion' button," Novak wrote of the Democrats' 1972 effort, when vice-presidental candidate Shriver was assigned the job of getting out Catholic voters. "Turning away from her in disgust, the older workers weren't meeting Shriver's eyes, and I saw two spit on the ground in angerthis in a factory in Joliet, Illinois, from which the Democrats should have gotten, maybe, 114 percent of the vote. It wasn't Sarge's fault. But such experiences of the Democratic party that year, not respecting its own base, were enough to make a neoconservative out of me."
It remains one of my favorite essays by Michael, and he points at the end toward abortion by noting that Shriver was always firmly pro-life, and yet, "the truth is, he really was a Democrat, a party man, all the way down. His loyalty was one of the reasons he was a great manand also one of the reasons he was never as great in politics as he should have been."
Ramesh Ponnuru has said that in his forthcoming book he will take up some of this abortion question. We went back and forth last year about the current unity of the Catholic vote, when just before the election I argued in the Weekly Standard that it was mostly a myth, and just after the election Ramesh returned in National Review that Catholic voters remain vital to any modern political campaign. But whatever the math, we agreed that the key fact is the end of the Catholic commitment to the Democratic party.
When all the dust has settled, Gene McCarthy will, I fear, bear some of the blame for the abortion turn in his party and the loss of the blue-collar Catholic vote. He wasn't George McGovern, or Walter Mondale, or John Kerry. But McCarthy's 1968 Children's Campaign helped deliver the party into the hands of the people who would nominate McGovern, Mondale, and Kerry. And though he was wry, and even sometimes wise in his observations about the change, he didn't do enough to stop it. In fact, he hardly tried.
What is the connection between the brain and consciousness? That is among the questions addressed by Father Edward T. Oakes in the forthcoming issue of FIRST THINGS. Discussing Daniel Dennett's new book, Sweet Dreams, Oakes writes this, for instance:
"I once attended a lecture by a philosopher who, in the midst of a tirade against the Christian right, interrupted himself and admitted that his atheism also had a problem: 'I hate to admit it,' he conceded, 'but I am a qualia freak.' Among philosophers working on the mind/body problem, the word qualia stands for all those features of consciousness that give awareness its specific identity as a particular kind of experience; the redness of red, the sadness of depression, the piguancy of papaya juice, the irksomeness of traffic jams, the crankiness that comes from insomnia, the hurt feelings arising from playground taunts, and so forth.
"Here's the problem in a nutshell: there seems to be no immediately obvious scientific explanation for how electrical firings inside the brain can give rise to these peculiar qualia. What does electricity, shooting through the raw meat of the brain, have to do with supply-side economics, office politics, or misunderstandings in a marriage?" (To become a subscriber to FIRST THINGS, check out the "Subscribe" button above.)
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