Campaigning: Eugene McCarthy

In many ways, it’s the same Gene McCarthy we’ve always known who’s out around the country now, working to build an independent candidacy for the presidency next year. He stands on the stage of a dark Gothic auditorium at the University of Chicago, and it seems exactly the right setting for him, the mystic of American politics. A deep red velvet curtain hangs high behind a raised lectern that is more a pulpit, and as he preaches from it, bright sunlight streams through a sculptured window and catches his ascetic profile. His hair is grayer and he is a bit heavier than in 1968, but the aloofness, the self-containment, the untouchableness of the man remain unchanged, his most distinguishing characteristics.

Like some cardinal of the medieval church, who has come to have his ring kissed and to administer absolution to the errant, he explains his challenge to the two-party system to several hundred college students who listen respectfully to the figure of history before them.

“Papal succession”

“I don’t know when it ever became a system,” he says with that air of tolerance others reserve for children. He reminds his audience that the parties are not mentioned in the Constitution, that the Founding Fathers, in creating the Electoral College, envisaged the selection of a President by a gathering of wise men beholden not to any party structure but to their own best judgment. He points out the irrationality of blind party loyalty, whereby Democrats who supported Lvndon Johnson on Vietnam immediately turned around and opposed his successor. Richard Nixon, who pursued essentially the same policy.

“You can see where this has become part of the national inheritance.” he tells the students. “It’s like papal succession.”And he cites the inability of Republicans, knowing that the office of the presidency had been demeaned and compromised by Nixon, to oppose him actively until the very end. Finally, he notes the public clamor for an alternative to the two major parties, as reflected in the public opinion polls, the rise in the independent vote, and the severe drop in all voting. All these he sees as indications that the two-party system is ripe for taking, or at least for shaking, by someone who can call up the better nature of the country, as he himself did in 1968.

“You make a judgment whether the test ought to be made.” he told the boys at Shattuck Academy in Faribault, Minnesota, at a later stop, “and if you’re there, you do it.”It was the kind of observation that one running more on principle than on any determination to succeed might have made. But McCarthy is campaigning and organizing fulltime - and enduring the considerable psychological discomfort of not being taken seriously. He has quit a part-time teaching job in New York and is funding his effort with the proceeds of lectures, for which he charges $1000. He is living in Washington with his son and trying to finish a book on contemporary America: he’s a kind of homegrown, lattcrday Tocqueville. whom he quotes repeatedly.

Word Person

Beyond the solitary nature of his current undertaking, the major difference between 1968 and now is, of course, that McCarthy doesn’t have the issue of a war with which to build a political force. Still, at Oakton Community College outside Chicago, he told a group that pressed him on the point. “I hope there will be a response. I don’t think it will be the emotional thing it was in ‘68. You can’t protest against inflation the way you can against a war.”

In his speeches, mostly on college campuses. McCarthy relies on other issues he raised in 1968, employing the same professorial stele, flavored with an undiminished cutting wit, that made him the candidate of the erudite and the politically irreverent seven years ago. He reminds his audiences of his 1968 warnings against excessive personification of the presidency, now adding to his familiar jibes at Johnson references to Nixon’s ornately costumed palace guard. In 1968, he said that he would tear down the fence around the White House and let people get closer to the presidency; now he says he would plow under the Rose Garden and plant squash and cabbage to keep the office in reasonable perspective. He asked one audience of students whether they could picture a White House press release that read. “The President came out into the cabbage patch and made a heroic statement.”

He calls unequivocally for resumption of the war on poverty and a shortened work week to spread jobs and cut unemployment. He promises a foreign policy that reflects rather than undermines American idealism. He has some new issues as well, such as the lack of responsibility in the automobile industry and the need to hold it to account: “You could have had the right wheel of every Chevrolet fall off and they would have said, ‘It’s a bad year,’ like a blight of bad apples. ... If Karl Marx had known about the automobile, he would have written another chapter saying, ‘Capitalism needs either war or the automobile.’ ”

And as befits an independent candidate. McCarthy twits Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Henry Jackson alike—sparing the liberals who might be expected to cut into his own vote. He recalls Ford’s observation that “truth is the glue of the American government,” then notes that the President comes from Grand Rapids, the furniture capital of America. “You read a man’s metaphor,”he says, “and you know something about what he is.”

He says that Ford recalled Paul Revere’s historic warning as “One if by day, two if by night,”and suggests that Jackson would have said. “One if by land, two if by sea; one and two is three. They’re also coming by air and we’d better be ready for them.” And on military preparedness and the defense budget, he speculates; “If we told Henry Jackson we have no blowguns and poison darts, he’d say, ‘We’d better get some. We’re underprepared . . . He’d put in a bill saving we ought to have parity with Brazil. After all, the Panama Canal is narrow.”

McCarthy remains, above all, a word person, amused by what others do with words, and even more so by what he does with them. The Nixon “team’s” equating the Vietnam war with a football game particularly entertains him. He says former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird dealt with the ineffectiveness of the South Vietnamese troops by explaining. “We look upon them as an expansion team.” And he applauds Nixon’s use of “incursion” to describe his invasion of Cambodia because, “You can’t make a verb out of it. You can sav to them, ‘Stop invading,’but you can’t say, ‘Stop incursing.’”

As in 1968, one often gets the impression that McCarthy is talking to edify himself as much as anyone else. At Oakton College, a sudden heavy rain began to pell the tin roof over his head, making it impossible for his audience to follow what he was saying. “It’s all right,”he said when somebody suggested he wait for the rain to stop, “I can hear.”


Not everyone who hears him is as impressed as people were in 1968. To some younger students, who remember him vaguely or have read about his challenge to Johnson, he is more a curio, a political museum piece to be seen when he comes to town. John Thorbeck. a twenty-three-vear-old graduate of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, told me: “He’s lost his issue and that takes away much of his dynamism. He’s older. He’s professorial now. I don’t think he’s a real viable candidate.

But if McCarthy has lost something, he seems to have gained a measure of forbearance that was often lacking in 1968. Traveling alone and unheralded, he puts in long days marred by inconveniences and what he would surely have treated as intrusions seven years ago. No student group seems too small these days to warrant a long interview. He spends much time in open-ended discussion with anybody who encounters him. He is reaching out for disciples one by one. with only the barest staff and some local volunteers, and he has to sell himself all over again. It’s not that he enjoys the grilling he faces, but he puts up with it with at least a show of cordiality, and that in itself is a change.

Driving back from Oakton late at night, he sat hunched and tired in the front seat of a Volkswagen and restrainedly responded to a string of questions from a Northwestern University student who was considering active support but wanted assurances on where McCarthy stood. As the questions were posed, the answers came more testily, but they came, until the student was taken to his residence in Evanston. Only then was McCarthy driven to his downtown Chicago hotel. In one sense the episode was a measure of how far McCarthy has slipped politically. In another sense, it seemed to say something about how committed he is to what he’s trying to do—a question always raised by his old backers who want to believe again but feel that they were burned by him in 1968.

This lime McCarthy is looking past the presidential primaries that were his undoing seven years ago at the hands of the brash Bobby Kennedy, past the major party conventions, to the general election campaign. While Democrats and Republicans al ke destroy each other in the primaries and at their conventions. he predicts, he will be inexorably building another liberal army at the grass roots, at least 5000 strong. The objective is to win ballot position for McCarthy-committed electors in all fifty states in what he says will prove to be at least a four-candidate race—the Democrat, the Republican, George Wallace, and himself. The result, he acknowledges, will probably be a deadlock, with no one candidate receiving a majority of the electoral votes. The Constitution requires under such circumstances that the election go to the House of Representatives, with the next President presumably chosen by a straight major-party vote. What good will that do McCarthy, the fallen-away Democrat, the independent?

“You could negotiate a settlement in the Electoral College so it wouldn’t have to go to the House,” McCarthy says. “If we had electors in the Electoral College, we might have a voice.”

In any such negotiation, he himself would not seem the likely beneficiary, so alienated is he now from regular Democrats. However, as a counter to Wallace and an alternative to him, the choice of McCarthy would not be inconceivable. And at a minimum, Gene McCarthy would again be charting unknown political waters, confirming his place in history as an innovative maverick, marching to his own drummer. He does not share the fears of others, as expressed in a question from a University of Chicago student, that a multicandidate field would turn the election process over to the Congress. “They couldn’t do worse than the people did the last time.” McCarthy responded. “Congress has only elected the President twice, and they picked Thomas Jefferson and one of the Adamses. That wasn’t too bad.”

Aardvark Party

So it’s not surprising now to find McCarthy out in the country doing his own thing. Those who dismiss him as a kind of Democratic Harold Stassen do not begin to gauge the man’s perspective on history. What can a politician who has helped dump an incumbent President do for an encore? Well, how about creating an enduring third party, seizing upon the national mood of disenchantment with the established parties?

Characteristically, McCarthy doesn’t talk of any new party, preferring to refer to a new “movement” that shuns party structure, in keeping with the original constitutional concept. But ironically, the new campaign finance law against which he has filed suit (in concert with Conservative Senator James L. Buckley of New York, a delicious McCarthy touch) could provide the financial base for development of such a party, looking past 1976 toward 1980.

The law provides that any independent candidate who receives 5 percent or more of the total popular vote is entitled to federal reimbursement of campaign debts, at a rate based on his vote, from the same income tax checkoff pool that is to provide the Democratic and Republican nominees with $20 million each. Also, a party that has received at least 5 percent of the vote in a previous presidential election qualifies for federal money on a similar vole formula for the next general election. Together, the provisions could give a McCarthy party several million dollars going into 1980. “You could almost perpetuate it as a political movement,” he says. “It could be a revolving fund.”

But that’s not his intent now, he says. Instead, he is fighting the new law on the grounds that it deprives citizens who want to give more than the $1000per-candidate limit of their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and petition. Subsidizing the two major parties, he says, is like having two supported religions in the country. “I’m sure if it had been brought up at the Constitutional Convention.” he told the University of Chicago audience, “it would have been thrown out in three minutes.”

As a practical consideration, it makes his fund-raising immeasurably more difficult, since liberal fat cats traditionally have been soft touches. “It’s almost as easy to get $10,000 as it is to get $1000,” he says. To fill the gap left by the demise of the big contribution, he is considering seeking money in conjunction with his petition effort for ballot position in each of the states. In California, for instance, about 350,000 signatures are required to qualify for a place on the ballot, and McCarthy may ask everyone who signs to give a dollar. In some states, however, only a relative handful of signatures is needed.

As for the reimbursement if he wins 5 percent of the vote, McCarthy says now he won’t ask for it, because he is opposing the whole law on principle. However, the situation could look different to him in November, 1976, if his effort has yielded any promise of building a continuing third party.

For now, though, McCarthy’s eye is on 1976 with no greater expectations than testing the political establishment and its clichés about what is and is not possible. At Oakton Community College. somebody asked him if his campaign had a symbol. He thought for a minute, then said he had decided to use the subject of one of his poems—“The Aardvark”—an African anteater, “The interesting thing about the aardvark.” he said, using lines from the poem, “is that we’ve never been able to determine that it evolved from anything, or evolved into anything. Also, it can’t distinguish colors; it sees gray both night and day. And it lives by eating termites, which thrive on dead wood . . . But I wouldn’t want to press this too far.”

The audience chuckled. Good old Gene McCarthy. But of course he can’t be taken seriously. Not twice.