Tuesday, December 13, 2005

U.S. Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, 1916-2005.

Having completed my academic obligations for the semester - I turned in my Contemporary Religious Movements paper last night - I'm now free to comment on a news item that engaged my interest this past weekend. On Saturday, former United States Senator and longtime political gadfly Eugene J. McCarthy died at his home in Georgetown at 89. Check out the obituaries in the New York Times, in the Washington Post and at McCarthy's alma mater Saint John's University for more details. McCarthy was, to my mind, one of the most intriguing characters to appear on the stage of American politics in the second half of the 20th century. One of the most intriguing things about him - and something few people other than myself would likely find intriguing - is the fact that McCarthy spent a few months as a Benedictine novice at Saint John's Abbey in the early-1940's. Few American politicians can claim experience in a monastery, and if Dominic Sandbrook gets it right in his superb biography of McCarthy, the five-time presidential candidate was strongly influenced by the Benedictine tradition. Knowing that he lived in the neighborhood, I always wanted to meet McCarthy when I was a student at Georgetown. Sadly, I never got the chance.

McCarthy made his biggest splash with his 1968 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, upsetting a sitting president in the New Hampshire primary (driving that president, Lyndon Johnson, out of the race) and attracting a devoted following of young antiwar activists who went "Clean for Gene" to campaign for McCarthy. In the words of rival candidate Robert F. Kennedy, the bookish McCarthy's White House bid attracted all the A students while the C students campaigned for Kennedy. For his own part, McCarthy had appraised the 1960 crop of Democratic presidential candidates that included RFK's brother with this classic quip: "I'm twice as liberal as Hubert Humphrey, twice as smart as Stuart Symington and twice as Catholic as Jack Kennedy."

As has happened with many another political maverick, McCarthy's fortunes declined pretty quickly after the euphoria of his first presidential campaign. Though he made several additional bids for the presidency and attempted to regain his old Senate seat in 1982, McCarthy was never again a serious candidate after 1968. For the remainder of his life, he remained in the public eye as an increasingly curmudgeonly and quixotic commentator on American politics and as a prolific and versatile writer (his published work includes some fine poetry). To my mind, McCarthy was an outstanding representative of a classic American archetype: the public man who runs for political office not to win but to contribute a unique and important perspective on debate about critical issues. In that regard, McCarthy played a role somewhat like the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures - he was as an ornery and idiosyncratic figure who told people things they needed to hear, even when they didn't want to. For these and other reasons, I'll miss Eugene McCarthy. Ave atque vale. AMDG.


At December 14, 2005 9:26 AM, Blogger Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

My Dad lives in an assisted living center in Georgetown. His downstairs neighbor until las weekend???? Sen Eugene McCarthy.

I caught a glimpse of him through his door once as he ate lunch at his dining table.

At December 16, 2005 3:49 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Susan -

That's a neat connection to have - I used to ride by The Georgetown Retirement Residence all the time when I was taking the bus from GU to Dupont Circle. Knowing that McCarthy lived there, I often thought when I rode by that it would be nice to look up the Senator and have a chance to talk to him. If I've had the chance, I suspect I would've asked him how his time at St. John's with the Benedictines had influenced his life. I guess I'll have to save those questions for eternity.


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