“If elected, I will go to the Pentagon ...” — Sen. Eugene McCarthy

Unlike Ike, Eugene McCarthy has an outsized gift for irony and whimsy, and is happiest when free to indulge it. Like Ike, he ventures where his peers fear to tread. McCarthy’s wisecrack about going to the Pentagon speaks volumes — about the quixotic aspect of his campaign for President, and about the failures of war policy in Washington and in Vietnam which are the backdrop and occasion for it.

The quixotic moralist as realist — McCarthy is a man who has managed to do well for himself in the past by taking “suicidal” positions, most notably his valedictory for the passing of Stevenson’s hour and refusal to embrace Kennedy’s at the Democratic National Convention in 1960. (One of the senator’s problems, it should be added, is that many people know him for his speech nominating Stevenson and for nothing else.) Something in him wants to laugh in the face of history, or at least in the face of the journalists who presume to pronounce on what is and isn’t realistic or historically fated. “They say I’m committing political suicide,” he remarked a few weeks ago. “Well, I’d rather do that and face up to the wrongness of the war than die of political old age.” Behind the laugh at other people’s political certainties, behind the offhand pose, is a serious man, and a practical enough one so that to many friends and foes opportunism often seems to be showing through the idealism.

What is certain?

The alleged certainties against which McCarthy argues today seem at first glance a great deal more certain than did Kennedy’s nomination eight years ago. For what is certain in January, 1968? That the war in Vietnam will be won? Lost? Negotiated? When? That Johnson will run for re-election? Live? Die? Win? Lose? That the Republicans will nominate an alternative to Johnson who favors liquidating the war? That they will indulge their right wing as in 1964? All of these are as uncertain as the outcome of a McCarthy-Johnson primary confrontation. And the questions do not end there. Would a McCarthy victory over Johnson or a pro-Johnson slate help persuade the President that he ought to retire, or provoke him instead into a more determined fight to serve on? No less serious, does a McCarthy candidacy, by splitting the Democrats, hurt the potential candidacy of a Rockefeller and strengthen that of a Nixon or Reagan? Even McCarthy concedes that his entry will contribute to Republican euphoria, and thus to a mood that could favor, say, Reagan over a Republican with more appeal to Democrats and independents. But they have their party, and he his, and it is hard to go through political life doing other politicians’ and other parties’ thinking for them.


With all these variables, why is so much of official Washington certain as a computer that McCarthy’s candidacy is an irresponsible exercise? In part the answer is that Washington doesn’t welcome quixotic souls, and the emergence of a quixotic realist is a paradox which clashes with most Washingtonians’ assumption that practicality and the status quo are the same thing. More immediately, Johnson’s Washington is a balkanized city of factions, too bitterly isolated to coalesce; amidst them, McCarthy is a loner who commands the loyalty of no faction and is suspect by all.

The Johnson men see him as a sulky hypocrite, mouthing great ideals about issues and institutions but really burning with the desire for revenge against the President, who lured the senator into the vice presidential hide-and-seek game in 1964, and rendered him an embarrassed loser. The Johnson men say they wish McCarthy would “grow up.”

The Administration stalwarts (not always the same as the Johnson men, for they include those J. Kenneth Galbraith has called “the strategyminded professors, the bloodless experts . . .”) seem to believe that this time the bullish war predictions really are sound, and that McCarthy is a petulant saboteur harassing the hard-pressed President just as the latter is attaining his objetives in Vietnam.


The Kennedy men have never liked McCarthy nor he them. He disdains their clannishness and obsequiousness toward their leader, and their leader he finds unsympathetic. They in turn feel about anti-Kennedy Democratic liberals the way Stalinists used to feel about Trotskyites. McCarthy has put Robert Kennedy on the spot, and Kennedy’s statements spin about like so many tops: he would, he suggests, split the country and seem opportunistic if he tried to usurp Johnson, but he would risk his own following and seem no less opportunistic if he abandoned his position on the war. So he will try to be as little an opportunist as possible (for Kennedy, sort of like being a little bit pregnant) by smiling beatifically on McCarthy’s campaign. This attempt at bilateral nonintervention will hardly charm the President. Yet Senator Kennedy’s Mona Lisa response to McCarthy is confusing to Kennedy loyalists. One way or another, McCarthy has upset what some political bookmakers have taken to be Kennedy’s timetable, which up till now has had Kennedy endorsing Johnson in 1968 and counting on his big chance for four years later (the scenario gets cloudy there, but logically or illogically. it calls for LBJ and RFK burying their hatchets in the submissive back of Hubert Humphrey sometime before the summer of 1972).

The Senate Democratic independents, many of them more outspoken critics of the war than McCarthy, are of two minds about him. Some, like Nelson of Wisconsin, Church of Idaho, McGovern of South Dakota, and Morse of Oregon, are up for reelection, and must worry not only about the drain a McCarthy candidacy would put on their campaign funds, but also about the vulnerable target a split Democratic Party presents to Republican challengers. Others, though they admire his guts, feel the same way about McCarthy the loner as do the Johnson and Kennedy men. Then there are those, like Vance Hartkc of Indiana, whose instinct is toward the dependability of a cohesive Senate bloc of anti-war Democrats as against the possible futility of a confrontation with LBJ in the primaries. But most of them would have to acknowledge that as anti-war senators they have had little effect on war policy. Johnson spoke as much about their ineffectiveness as from his own irritability when he said in November, “I can’t say that these various proposals that range from a Senator to a county commissioner to a mayor of a city have really changed General Westmoreland’s plan much or Ambassador Bunker’s proposals.”

Then there is the Washington press corps, which includes a number of individuals who love McCarthy for his charm, intelligence, and merciless humor (he once remarked that Kenneth Keating and Jacob Javits were skin-deep liberals, rather like faint-hearted soldiers who wait till the fighting is over and then go out and shoot up the enemy wounded). They also deplore what they diagnose as a severe case of laziness, which frees him to be effective in the delivery of his sardonic one-liners but of little consequence elsewhere in Washington. In Minnesota, says a presidential assistant who is partial to Humphrey, “Hubert did all the fence-mending and thankless political work that made the state safe for him and McCarthy, and now in the Senate Fritz Mondale does it all. McCarthy never lifts a finger.”With his customary pungency, columnist Robert Novak expresses a more sympathetic criticism: “Gene just has none of Kennedy’s patience for dealing with all that impacted crap of Byzantine local political organizations.” Some newsmen can’t make out if McCarthy is running for President or against the war, and feel there is a crucial difference; they see the latter as a fool’s errand and doubt that McCarthy can affect the war any more through a sizable primary vote than through Senate resolutions. From anti-Johnson senators and sympathetic newsmen one might expect to hear any minute now the same words one used to hear about the first McCarthy: ”I agree with his goals, but not his methods.”

Deferred dream

Given the ifs and uncertainties of politics in 1968, what can one count on? An early resolution of the war satisfactory to most citizens is obviously improbable. One can then buy the pessimistic prognosis and count on escalation continuing to breed more of the same. The latent casualty, Secretary of Defense McNamara, is supposed to have fallen in battle against escalation. Whether or not he has in fact been sacrificed to the gods of war, the President often manages to mix promises of early peace with news of escalation. So one might speculate with the optimists that by next summer the U.S. position in Vietnam will have stabilized to the point where casualty rates are declining, and where some troops are actually being brought home in accord with the Administration’s long-deferred dream of a “phase-out.” But here there lies a trap for the President. Clearly the strongest buttress to his political position would be demonstrable evidence that the war is at last being won, and an equally demonstrable reduction of American troop strength in Vietnam as proof of the Administration’s confidence in any addition to it maze of “corners turned” announcements. The President wants this development badly, and wants it on a schedule best calculated to enhance his political position while undermining that of hawkish spokesmen for escalation and doveish prophets of cataclysm. So it is probable that, as is his wont, Johnson will be tempted to manipulate appearances to make this projection seem proven even if it isn’t.

Whatever he says is the state of affairs will be examined mercilessly, no matter what is going on, by observers all the way from Hanson Baldwin to Mary McCarthy. And if the Hanson Baldwins can show that the President is staging a faked phase-out without the projected corner of stabilization having in truth been turned, or if the Mary McCarthys can show that new escalation proceeds behind the facade of a faked phase-out, if in short, statistics and troop strengths and the levers of war at the President’s command are being manipulated even a little, the President will be charged with a misdeed which to the voters will border on a crime: playing domestic politics with the war. The charge has of course already been made by the President’s critics on the left; it is certain to be pressed later on by hawkish and doveish Republicans. The: question will be to what extent the President is going to be guilty of it, and to what extent the people will believe he is guilty of it.

Scandal or fact of life?

What else can one count on? Riots; without doubt worse ones than in 1967. The inability of the Administration to head off an escalating string of ghetto riots in 1968 is, depending on how you look at it, a scandal, or a fact of life as long as the war continues, or a fact of life even if the war were to end tonight. The. Administration line is that all the appropriations the President could ask for or the Congress grant won’t prevent riots next summer, and that to say that the war, by sapping money and energy, causes riots is a phony argument.

Here too, the Administration can argue its case on nationwide television every day between now and the election, but it will have little effect as long as the public sees a war in Vietnam and racial violence in the cities as twin catastrophes over which Lyndon Johnson presides but which he cannot control. Certainly Administration men acknowledge that the President’s time and attention are monopolized by Vietnam, but they ridicule the notion that an instant solution to the ghetto problem is lying neglected on his desk beneath the cables from Saigon. They do acknowledge that as there is no magic program that can head off riots, and as the weekly drill of National Guard and Reserve units in riot control is a great deal more the heart of the Administration’s response to the 1967 riots than the almost unnoticed President’s Commission on Civil Disorders, Johnson will inevitably be taking a “law and order” stance by next summer that will make Goldwater’s 1964 talk about racial trouble seem like fuzzy ADA cocktail talk.

But here too, Johnson’s position is not as strong as it might seem. There are critics of the President who go as far as to envision an American kind of garrison state of late-Hitler vintage, overcommitted and bleeding badly abroad, and holding down explosive revolutionary upheaval in cities all across the country only through force of arms. But as was seen in Detroit last summer, any President’s police powers are limited (and in the case of the National Guard in Detroit, have only limited effectiveness), and this President’s exercise of those powers tends to collide with his instinct to play politics. The big-city mayors may in many cases be his friends and allies; the governors of New York, Michigan, California, and Pennsylvania are not. The garrison-state nightmare could come true, but it would more than likely be preceded by chaotic bumbling from which no one can profit politically, just as the Michigan National Guard’s less than ready performance preceded the President’s dispatch of General Throckmorton to Detroit. Surrounding the whole drama will be a clash of local, state, and federal prerogatives and policing functions, and following it all, blame and counterblame. Through it all, Johnson may behave as impeccably as a nonpolitical statesman of the cast of Henry Stimson; he will still be fighting an impression, created by his conduct during the Detroit riots, that he looks for political advantage even in the midst of dark crisis.

Localism and “leadership”

Thus handicapped, the President will find it difficult to do what he may be forced to do anyway for lack of choice: exploit adversity to the extent of running on his conduct of the war and on a “law and order” response to riots at home. Liberals and conservatives alike observe that the voters are disgusted with the expansion of government, and the inability of government, despite its expansion, to manage the country better; from Kennedy liberals like Daniel P. Moynihan come calls for a re-evaluation of decentralization. More in the conservative spectrum, Horace Busby, a longtime Johnson aide and Secretary to the Cabinet in 1964 and 1965, recently put forth some persuasive conclusions, which because of Busby’s experience as a business and local government consultant are being received with interest in Washington by bureaucrats who want to know what’s going on “out there.” (They may also want a rationale for the fatalism that is prevalent in Washington.) “For more than thirty years,” Busby says, “we have been getting used to the notion of a dynamic, dominant, interventionist federal government, and the cliché has been that all power is flowing toward Washington. But when you look closely at the activity, it’s primarily in the economic and international spheres. Now the federal government is trying to tackle the problems of the cities, and it’s coming face to face with the intricately structured nature of local power. Local policing power, local and state control of education, and perhaps most important in terms of ‘moving’ and ‘rebuilding’ the cities, the dependence of local government on property tax revenues: these are all realities which are not about to disappear. At the moment Johnson is getting blamed for stalemates in some of these areas as though the fault were in the presidency. It’s not.”

To some presidential advisers, “leadership” is the short-term political prescription for the malaise that grows out of these problems of governmental frustration. But how can “leadership” prevail against the situations in Vietnam and the ghettos? Busby and others argue that the clamor for “solutions” is misleading; there can only be responses. But “leadership” minus a program is a thin substitute for either one. One hears little now of the poverty program except word of new trouble. The days seem long ago indeed when Lyndon Johnson was enjoying his power and his ability to translate it into legislation with the rapacious exuberance of Henry VIII.


From one point of view, the President now has nothing but the war to run on, because it’s the only major operation under his direction that is functioning on all cylinders. He has lost control of Congress as completely as he had it dancing to his tune three years ago. The war and the collapse of the pound help make his domination of the economy uncertain. His position now as an embattled, boxed-in administrator of programs that do not bring desired or promised results draws him little sympathy from either the Congress or the voters, not least of all because he was such an overreacher and overperformer in 1964 and 1965. As long as he performed well, and as long as Congress kept up the pace, his overreaching mattered little more than his yanks of his beagles’ ears. But even to unsophisticated voters, the cost effectiveness of Lyndon Johnson without a Congress that will deal with him is small, and this is part of the explanation for his failure as a “statesman” faced with solving intractable problems of war and racial disorder through the executive branch of the government.

In 1964 and 1965, Mr. Johnson’s performance as a politician-President who made our governmental system function productively was highly visible. Congress, which so many political scientists had written off as the beached whale of American politics, actually seemed young and randy with a love of activism.

The upbeat first act ended rather suddenly on the day in 1965 when Congress faltered in its adherence to Johnson’s assembly-line mass production of legislation and defeated that year’s home rule bill for the District of Columbia. “That’s it,” said Johnson to some staff members. “That’s what?” one asked. “That means it’s all over. We’ve got our basic legislation, and this is the signal that they’re back to where they can form a coalition to beat us again.”

Johnson bound

In the current, melancholy second act, the scene shifts to the executive, and Johnson being Johnson, the action shifts from cannon-and-bugle legislation to more covert maneuver. Having brought fire to Congress and Vietnam and tempted the gods on both fronts, Prometheus is now bound and can only wail (“I am President” — a sarcastic rejoinder to questions he feels are presumptuous) and make sarcastic cracks, as he did in his November press conference, about the meaninglessness of Senate resolutions. (“The Senate Foreign Relations Committee kinda had a big day yesterday. They reported two resolutions in one day.”) His substantive performances, when they recapture the maestro mood, are no longer visible to the people, as when he was rolling bills out of Congress — Medicare, aid to education, anti-poverty, civil rights — that had been impassable for almost two decades. In those days, he admitted candidly to his staff that he had to overreach because he realized that the perishability of his 1964 mandate was great.

Few would argue that his overreaching produced bad legislation, or even legislation that in retrospect ought not to have been tried because of disappointing late returns on the programs it created. But there was a personal aspect to the overreaching, and for that Johnson is nowpaying the price, in a Greek sense. Even to many who cheered Johnson in 1964 and 1965, there was a troubling suspicion of power-lust built into the man’s makeup. The suspicion remained vague so long as his performance as politician-President remained productive. Now he is the frustrated warmaker who can’t get the victory either of substance or face which he demands, and in cruel turnabout, the further he reaches, the further his goals seem to recede. His overreaching is so emphasized by his war stance that it hides the crafty, cautious, apprehensive part of his nature known so well to those who worked with him and observed him during his Senate career (“Lying-down Lyndon” was the phrase then). In fact, the latter manifests itself now in calculated appeasement of the hawks — as in the ABM decision, for example — in the hope that it will keep the superhawks quiet, and protect him against the charge he still fears even more than that he plays politics with the war: the charge that he, like all Democrats, is “soft on Communism.” President-watchers (as opposed to Johnson-watchers) say all this emphasizes the nature of the man too much, and the nature of the presidency too little. To them, Johnson is simply too deeply into a war to maneuver his way out.


“Johnson,” argues Eugene McCarthy, author of a new book entitled The Limits of Power, “consumes everything around him: institutions as well as people; the Cabinet, staff, Supreme Court justices. . . .” For a season after the 1964 election it even seemed that he had rendered the two-party system obsolete, and he and his advisers used to ruminate on the bright future of the Johnson consensus, swelled with Republican defectors. The President underestimated the twoparty system’s resilience, and today his consensus stretches all the short distance from L. Mendel Rivers to Everett McKinley Dirksen. His hope that with the help of the likes of Dirksen he can replay his 1964 campaign strategy at least to some extent seems as undependable as the hope that he can make the war and the riots work to his political advantage. He speaks of drawing toward the center a facsimile of his 1964 consensus, a coalition of “responsibility” against the extremes.

To his challenger McCarthy, the extremes slice rather differently. The senator compares the way the war is polarizing opinion in America today to the situation in France seventy years ago at the time of the Dreyfus case. (Johnson’s perorations at military bases evoking a martial ethos support the point; they disturb even White House staff members.) The frustration implicit in such a split seeks an outlet, and one way McCarthy’s supporters rationalize the Minnesota senator’s activities is by pointing to the therapeutic effect his campaign will have on the ailing body politic, channeling dissent and protest off the streets and into calmer forms of political expression.

That rationale alone would not satisfy McCarthy because it makes him nothing but a functionary. “What is he really up to?” is the question everyone asks about him. He is too shrewd a politician to answer it simply; he is certainly too proud to choose for himself a role of mere sacrificial functionary in the cause of therapy. Yet he stands to lose too much and the odds are too much against him for him to be merely an opportunist. In a speech in Cambridge in November he quoted Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach’s remarks to the effect that the President doesn’t need congressional declarations of war to conduct war. If katzenbach’s theories hold, said McCarthy, we are now living, insofar as foreign policy is concerned, under a kind of constitutional totalitarianism, “a four-year dictatorship.” In fact, he concluded, “much of what Katzenbach said is true. Only every four years do the people have a chance to say something about foreign policy.”

That is one view of the American way of politics in 1968. The opposite one, expressed several weeks ago by the President, has it that “all we have as a nation, we owe to our unity as a people.” The latter view somewhat oversimplifies the events of 1861-1865; it also fails to allow for the fact that every fourth year in this country there is a presidential election.

Michael C. Janeway