Given that he’d voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing more or less whatever escalation took the president’s fancy, the principle at stake was not so easy to discern. At one level, it seems not unreasonable that, in a country with growing opposition to a war, one of the two parties should represent that opposition at an electoral level. On the other hand, had the mostly young and not terribly representative antiwar movement failed to find its “accidental instrument” in McCarthy, today’s political map would look very different. There’s something to be said for taking the view that, regardless of the merits of this or that foreign war, once you’re in it you might as well win it. Alternatively, there’s something to be said for the position that, if you’re going to cut and run, do it quick and get over it, as the British did when they abandoned Aden, on the Arabian coast, the day before McCarthy launched his presidential campaign. On November 29, 1967, the Union Jack was lowered over the city, and the high commissioner, his staff, and all Her Majesty’s forces left. On November 30, the People’s Republic of South Yemen was proclaimed—the only avowedly Marxist state in Araby. Yet the British shrugged off 130 years of colonial rule in Aden with nary a thought. Just one of those things, old bean. No sense making a fuss about it.
But to cut your losses and then mire yourself in an interminable psychological quagmire of your own has little to recommend it. “Vietnam casts long shadows,” we’re told, but not so much across the nation at large as over the Democratic Party. Forty years after McCarthy’s swift, brutal destruction of the most powerful Democrat in the second half of the twentieth century, it remains unclear whether his party will ever again support a political figure committed to waging serious war, any war: Clinton bombed more countries in a little over six months than the supposed warmonger Bush has hit in six years, but, unless you happened to be in that Sudanese aspirin factory or Belgrade embassy, it was always desultory and uncommitted. Even though the first Gulf War was everything they now claim to support—UN-sanctioned, massive French contribution, etc.—John Kerry and most of his colleagues voted against it. Joe Lieberman is the lonesomest gal in town as an unashamedly pro-war Democrat, and even Hillary Clinton’s finding there are parts of the Democratic body politic that are immune to the restorative marvels of triangulation. Gene McCarthy’s brief moment in the spotlight redefined the party’s relationship with the projection of military force. That’s quite an accomplishment. Whether it was in the long-term strategic interests of either the party or American liberalism is another question.
As for the senator himself, he all but vanished except as an idea—a gentle giant, an inspiration, the conscience of the movement, etc. The way they talked about him you’d think he’d been assassinated in 1968, too. In fact, he remained politically active, at least in the sense that he became a perpetual presidential candidate, the most reliable quadrennial flopperoo since Harold Stassen. He ran most recently against Bush Sr., Clinton, and Perot in 1992. Were you aware of that? Don’t be embarrassed. The 42.4 percent “Clean for Gene” vote had dwindled down to a 0.2 percent largely Unseen for Gene vote by the time he ran against Ford and Carter in ’76. In 1968, he was the indispensable man whose charm was that he didn’t regard himself as such. Having been dispensed with by his party, he spent the next quarter- century insisting on his relevance.
Shortly after the 1968 campaign, his wife, Abigail, left him, though, as devout Catholics, they never divorced. And so it was with his party: they left the man but without ever being quite able to divorce themselves from the McCarthyite spirit of ’68. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young and Clean for Gene was very heaven.