The McCarthy Campaign

The (Gene) McCarthy-watchers have brought forth a stream of books attempting to solve the riddles of 1968. At the Atlantic’s invitation, Mrs. McCarthy recorded some thoughts about the books and about her husband’s campaign.

“Who is right?” asked a puzzled lady at a dinner party the other night as people argued about the way change is effected in human history.

“Nobody yet, said the man next to me, gratuitously answering the rhetorical question. I laughed and felt a sudden sense of relief. I had been trying for days to make sense of the campaign of 1968 in terms of the books written about it and the people who wrote them. It was like looking at maps of a well-known terrain. I found it hard to see the correspondence between the charted lines and the hills and woods I knew. Like the maps of early explorers, these books often have the proportions wildly wrong. (Or, like the New Yorker’s map of the United States, they distort the whole in a myopic concentration on the author’s particular thesis.)

Who has explained what happened in 1968? And who has done it best? Nobody yet.

Any survey of campaign books tells us as much about the varied authors as it does about the campaign. With the exception of the authors of An American Melodrama, who, like other foreign observers, sensed the importance of the McCarthy effort at the very beginning and had the advantage of British detachment, these authors have assumptions and reputations to defend. Theodore White, or example, had a best-selling format to maintain and also felt a personal devotion to the Kennedys. Richard Stout has labored by means of a year of research to give life to what he failed to see as a Newsweek reporter assigned to the campaign—the “coalition of conscience of citizens of all ages” which made up the McCarthy volunteer army. Ben Stavis saw the campaign as a representative of the graduate student community who left academia to become part of the structure. Norman Mailer and Jeremy Larner, one greater, one lesser, saw it as fiction writers, those who must, as a matter of art, impose form on the raw stuff of experience and whose every experience, and every view of other human beings, is fired in the crucible of imagination and comes out an artifact with perhaps a truth of its own, however it may vary from its model and subject. In Mailer this process produces a “sea change into something rich and strange” —pure Mailer; in Larner it is photosynthesis and orchidaceous growth. Arthur Herzog is a free-lance writer who participated in the campaign as one of the more mature members of the McCarthy campaign’s national staff. Bonnie Ritter Patton’s thesis is an example of the rich vein academics have found to tap for dissertations past and dissertations to come for a long, long time. Jules Witcover’s book is about Robert Kennedy, but it is valuable counterpoint and the most detached in its account of the McCarthy-Kennedy confrontation. Jay Sykes writes of the Wisconsin campaign from the perspective of the grass roots, consequently—it seems—with more bounce and verve than the others.

Of those books written by participants in the McCarthy campaign, the most measured and the most objective about the campaign itself is Herzog’s. The most thorough study of the candidate, his development of thought on domestic and foreign policy, his speeches, and his congressional history is Stout’s. It is difficult to make such a judgment because all these books, coming so soon after the campaign, suffer from the fact that many sources were not open to the authors. Thus, even those that are most objective are often mistaken. One fights one’s way through a thicket of inaccuracies in each book, especially in the passages having to do with the McCarthy background before 1968. Anecdotes seem suspect history, probably because their sources are assistants without full information or bystanders who just like to seem knowledgeable. And they change subtly from book to book, in the manner of the old children’s game “Telephone,” and quickly become myth. For example, a partly true anecdote (about Edward Kennedy’s visit to McCarthy on the eve of Robert Kennedy’s entry into the race), in which I figure, in An American Melodrama loses all its qualifying statements in Theodore White’s version. So what is one to make of the fascinating tidbits about others? About Blair Clark, the campaign manager, for instance, in Herzog s account?

A Harvard classmate and friend of John Kennedy’s, he had good connections in the world of society and money. (“We’re a little too Ivy League for the campaign,” he later told a friend.)

And about the senator’s administrative aide, called roguish and lovable by Herzog, with this dismaying account to prove it:

(at a fund-raising meeting) Eller proceeded to deliver one of his pseudoserious political monologues. A “true believer” he said shouldn’t spend all his time inquiring whether Senator McCarthy had a good voting record. Women became involved in a political movement such as this as a sex substitute like bowling, Eller said. Scholars, he insisted, handed over old theses and articles instead of trying to develop new ideas for position papers. The scholars screamed. The Republicans cried out that freedom of inquiry was being stifled in the heart of a people’s democratic crusade, and the women stared quietly at their laps.

The sources were limited because many principal figures did not want to be interviewed; others had a particular case they wished to make. Still others-reporters and representatives of various organizations—wanted their very personal involvement forgotten. Reading the books can become an exercise in gamesmanship. Who is this mysteriously anonymous “campaign aide”? Who are “those in Washington who say . . .”? Who is this loquacious “old friend”? and who is this “former McCarthy assistant”?

In general, those who seem to have contributed information most willingly are from the shadowy interlocking group of aides and influence men, who are so much a part of the Washington scene, indeed, of the scene of national politics everywhere. These are men who are content to work behind the scenes and who like to work through other men. As overviews, Herzog’s book and Stout’s suffer from having to depend so much on sources like these for information. Richard Stout, most at home in this world of secondary sources, uses them more skillfully, but where Herzog was eyewitness and actor, he is master of his material.

As one who was there, Herzog evokes the final excitement of New Hampshire:

The contradictions bothered no one and as the campaign progressed toward its denouement, McCarthy began collecting help from every side. Almost anybody, it seemed, who came near the candidate’s Sheraton Wayfarer headquarters in Manchester caught the McCarthy bug, an illness which was to linger, month after month. The editor of the Harvard Crimson doing a story on the campaign dropped out of school; a Newsweek reporter covering McCarthy took a leave of absence. Howard Stein (president of the Dreyfus Fund) made calls from under a table in the pressroom as his elegant wife, Janet, cooked meals for the Senator and his family, while Robert Lowell talked verse with him and Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul, and Mary, sang songs. There were never enough rooms. People slept on floors, six to a room, in the hallways, anywhere, if they slept at all.

Understandably, to Ben Stavis (We Were the Campaign), whose whole experience was in one headquarters or another and who saw his candidate once at Keene, New Hampshire, and not again until Chicago, the campaign was the impressive student effort.

Almost a thousand young people worked on the campaign’s national staff at some point. Certainly another five thousand to ten thousand people worked part time in storefronts in the primary states, campus headquarters, and nonprimary states. At least fifty thousand students joined in canvassing. Tens of thousands of others raised and gave money. This large group of novice political workers made up the campaign. They may be able to apply their skills and energies to politics in the coming decades on both the local and national level.

Joshua Leinsdorf, more of a loner, missed New Hampshire and spent his time either in the pressroom or in his self-developed transportation command post, where he chartered airplanes and buses with all the aplomb and assurance of his twenty-two years. He was not so sure about the students:

AN AMERICAN MELODRAMA: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 by Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page. Viking, 1969.

MCCARTHY FOR PRESIDENT by Arthur Herzog. Viking, 1969.

NOBODY KNOWS: Reflections on the McCarthy Campaign of 1968 by Jeremy Larner. Macmillan, 1969. TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A TRAVEL AGENT by Joshua Leinsdorf. Unpublished manuscript, 1968-69.

MIAMI & THE SIEGE OF CHICAGO by Norman Mailer. World, 1968.

THE 1968 POLITICAL CAMPAIGN OF SENATOR EUGENE J. MCCARTHY: A study of rhetorical choice by Bonnie Ritter Patton.

WE WERE THE CAMPAIGN: New Hampshire to Chicago for McCarthy by Ben Stavis. Beacon, 1969.

STORY OF THE MCCARTHY CAMPAIGN IN WISCONSIN by Jay Sykes (newspaper series in Madison Capital Times, May 26, 1969, to June 7, 1969).

PEOPLE by Richard T. Stout. Harper & Row, 1970. 85 DAYS: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy by Jules Witcover. Putnam’s, 1969.

THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968 by Theodore H. White. Atheneum, 1969.

It was commonly held that the McCarthy campaign took the student radicals off the streets and restored their faith in the American political system. Nothing could be further from the truth. McCarthy merely brought those young people who were already interested in politics onto the national scene ten years earlier than usual. The Columbia riots occurred after McCarthy presented a viable alternative within the political system.

The truth about the student involvement probably lies between these two points of view. One remembers that James Kunen, of The Strawberry Statement, alternated between occupying buildings at Columbia and doing what he could for “Clean,” as he called the candidate.

“The only free people are the students and the women,” said Gene McCarthy in 1967. The women go unsung in these books except as individuals here and there. Stout cites them once in a list of committees; Herzog characterizes them as a minority group among other minorities; Stavis alone concedes that the women’s committee in Portland “seemed to be the core of the campaign before store fronts were opened.”

The students and young people who worked in the campaign, Richard Stout concluded, were little different in outlook from the adult volunteers. The young got all the headlines, “which was something of a journalistic oversight,” although he concedes that the Children’s Crusade remained the prime symbol of the spirit.

Of the approaches more fictional in method, Norman Mailer’s has a flamboyant charm. I do not recognize myself, but I feel a little indebted to him for his rather flattering, double-edged description:

a warm-colored woman with a pleasant face full of the arch curves of a most critical lady of the gentry. Something in her expression spoke of uncharitable wit, but she was elegant. .

What a lot to see in someone standing at a distance on the back of a flathed truck! Our daughter Mary insists that she said what he claims to have said in the conversation he reports, and that he said what she was supposed to have said. And he turned a tableful of genial Minnesota Germans and Swedes —one of them five feet two in his stocking feet—into Irishmen:

. . . some were big genial Irishmen with horn-rimmed glasses and some were lean Irishmen with craggy faces . . . the Senator’s friends looked tough and were tough-minded.

Still, Mailer is some of the best reading in this collection. His reflections on the Anglican doctrir of exchange—could he, guilty sinner, sacrifice himself in some way to keep Robert Kennedy alive—is an astonishing sequence, however one may wonder about the narcissistic nature of such grief.

Jeremy Larner’s publisher calls Larner’s Nobody Knows “a novelistic report” and Jeremy “a principal speech writer,” which he undoubtedly was, although he was in the campaign on a substantial retainer from one of the important contributors and not as a chosen aide of the candidate, facts which throw some light on their uneasy relations and his need to explain them. By his own admission Jeremy belonged to the tail end of the silent generation and is probably accurately described by Renata Adler’s perceptive note about a few of that generation. “Some of us have dropped a generation back to lead a student movement that belies everything we are.” And it is true that by his constant use of “we,” he tends to co-opt the students; yet he lived and worked with the group the students called the Mandarins—Richard Goodwin, when he was with the campaign, and other top staff.

Though short (189 pages), Larner’s book is rich in insights, perceptive about personal styles, and replete with deft word pictures. But in defense of his central thesis—that the candidate and the campaign were unsuited to each other-he allows himself to be both ill-humored and ill-informed.

“Our own candidate had no past for us,” he says, and proceeds to provide him with one in a few pages which are an amazing mishmash of allegations about Catholic history and philosophy, ethnic background, and congressional record. Dates are wrong, decades are compressed-among other things, Minnesota’s Stearns County Germans were robbed of thirty years of their history; anti-cold-war statements of the 1950s were adduced to prove that McCarthy is antipathetic to the great causes of race and poverty in the late 1960s.

Larner explains the candidate’s character in terms of his nationality-the German half, at least. He ascribes McCarthy’s political philosophy to his “belief that the power of reason can give some direction to human life and some direction to the movement of history itself.” This belief he ascribes in turn to his religion.

Suffice it to say that such pop research does not illuminate anything. A thirty-year-old who is the product of one of our affluent neighborhoods or homogeneous suburbs might be defined by his ethnic background and the schooling of his first eighteen years. But not a man in his fifties from a state known for populism, third parties, the farm and labor upheavals of the Great Depression—a man who worked for the cooperative movement, voted for Norman Thomas rather than Roosevelt, who has been in the forefront of liberal politics for twenty-odd years.

Mrs. McCarthy taught in public schools and at her alma mater, the College of St. Catherine, before she married Eugene McCarthy in 1945. She is at work on her own book, to be published early next year.

Perhaps it is just that Larner attempts too much. If read purely as an account of his six months with the campaign, of what he saw and heard and how it looked to him, how he felt about it, his little book is invaluable. Its highly subjective nature has its own validity; though Larner’s final dictum about the man he worked for tells as much about himself as about his candidate:

All of this added up to a man whose concept of his own identity was so precious to himself, and so fragile, that he could not tolerate disagreement or equality, could not, in fact, work directly and openly with others.

For books concerned with a movement, these seem to dwell overlong on the character of the candidate. Each author has a long analysis. Richard Stout writes,

Though he usually kept his private thoughts and those things he considered his own to himself, there was never a McCarthy for public consumption particularly different from the man friends saw in private. He was essentially the same whether going into a funk in his office or on the campaign trail, whether criticizing a Kennedy in private or in public. . . .

McCarthy did in a real sense impose his personality on the campaign. It was the personality of a nonhero who, therefore, came off as a non-candidate.

After reading these books, in considering the writers’ analyses, in sorting out their varied insights, the cases they make for one point of view or another, the amazingly different conclusions they come to about the same set of facts, one begins to apprehend, but dimly, a whole, a shape, a meaning beyond what they have found and which may safely be left to the historians and novelists of the future.

The father of modern sociology, Max Weber, cited in An American Melodrama, argued that human society exhibits only three “ultimate principles” of leadership: bureaucratic, traditional, and finally, charismatic authority, which arises where there are special needs which cannot be satisfied by the ordinary rules. The passage is worth rereading because of the uncanny parallels to the campaign of 1968. If we go back to Tolstoy we find still another kind of leadership: it is a leadership rooted in an inexorable movement of people, a leadership which recognizes a new point in the development of history and articulates the deepest aspirations and ideals of the people.

There was a new politics in the McCarthy campaign of 1968—and yes, there was a new constituency. Richard Stout, who inquired into the nature of this constituency through exhaustive questionnaires and interviews, states flatly that it was “probably the most intelligent and highly educated group of people who had ever joined together politically in the history of civilization.” It is perhaps not his fault that he cannot do it full justice. Only a Tolstoy could.

The constituency was bigger than the Movement so called, which unites the New Left and the civil rights and peace activists, although they were part of it. It was not just the reformers of politics, although they were part of it. It was more than academia united with the mobile society of scientists, educators, technologists, and the new postWorld War II college class. It was more than the coalition of these and the liberals of the suburbs. The factory people of Berlin, New Hampshire, voted McCarthy, as did rural Wisconsin. By the time of the convention, Stout tells us, he was getting formidable support from blacks.

The constituency was, I think, the best of Middle America, in search of a new way of expressing itself as a consensus. It was not politic to call it the educated vote as Gene McCarthy did (and as these books tell us in shocked tones), but it was an educated vote in the most profound sense. It was a constituency of thoughtful America and troubled America. It was the America liberated enough by the good things democracy should provide all citizens that it had time to wonder and to question.

McCarthy, writes Arthur Herzog, “was a neoJeffersonian opposed to the coercive use of power and he was presenting the nation with the first serious political analysis it has heard in years.” On this last point all the writers agree.

When the people are ready to move forward, says Tolstoy, they heed a leader evoking the best that is in them, “who will hear everything, remember everything, put everything in its place.” Such a leader must feel at one with the great mass of people and know them in his very bones so that he can move ahead of them.

Alexander, the young czar of War and Peace, could not lead because he was surrounded by contending military theorists, activists, nationalists, compromisers, the “passionately devoted who saw in him all virtues all human capabilities, were enchanted with him for refusing to command yet blaming him for excessive modesty,” and a final group interested only in advantage and pleasure. When he retired to the capital with this motley following, the general Kutuzov could and did spearhead the movement of the people to save Russia. Unfortunately, a presidential candidate is both ruler and general. Did the candidate in 1968 cease to believe in the constituency? These books describe him surrounded by groups vying for attention and influence—a Senate staff protective and seeking to keep him the inhabitor of their legend, two campaign staffs, theorists, activists, anxiety-ridden compromisers, contributors with aims and pet methods of their own, and an always tempting inner circle. Thus encompassed, it might be hard to believe in a constituency so amorphous on the one hand, so demanding on the other, but it was there. □