"Don't get too excited if you think you feel a groundswell. It might just be a frost heave." These were words of advice from former Senator Eugene McCarthy to CBS News' Bob Schieffer who interviewed him at his farmhouse in Virginia in 1997 about the meaning of the New Hampshire primary.
There is a certain irony that McCarthy, whose "better than expected" 42 percent in New Hampshire in 1968 caused President Lyndon Johnson to drop his campaign for reelection, died on the day Democrats were debating the fate of the primary and even voting on a proposal to schedule it as early as January 7 in 2008. In 1968, the New Hampshire primary was held on March 12 and McCarthy thought even February was too early for serious decisions to be made.
"The ancients recognized this and they worship the dead in February," he said. "They didn't look forward, they looked down and back."
McCarthy had become quite a curmudgeon in the years following that historic campaign (Some would argue that he was well on his way in '68.) In 1980 the liberal anti-war leader endorsed Ronald Reagan and later supported his Star Wars program. He ran for President again in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992 and railed against a liberal shibboleth—campaign finance reform.
The last time I saw him, at a dinner at Marymount University in Arlington honoring his friend, the late CBS reporter Marya McLaughlin in 2002, he was his old acerbic self on campaign finance reform and reporters who compared him to another maverick, Sen. John McCain, the leading advocate for change. McCarthy had been a plaintiff in the landmark Buckley v.Valeo case and argued that campaign finance reform was mainly a device designed to keep power in the hands of the two parties and to exclude third and fourth party candidates from debates and campaign coverage.
He received an award from the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) for his position in 2000 and he credited big money with his clout in 1968.
"We had a few big contributors," he said. "And that's true of any liberal movement. In the American Revolution, they didn't get matching funds from George III."
But, McCarthy was not a supporter of the current president or the Iraq War and in a very carefully crafted statement, his old nemesis Sen. Ted Kennedy found a way to make common cause.
"Gene's name will forever be linked with our family. In spite of the rivalry with Bobby in the 1968 campaign, I admired Gene enormously for his courage in challenging a war America never should have fought. His life speaks volumes to us today, as we face
a similar critical time for our country."
I was at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard this week talking to students who are taking a course on the 60s. They asked what I remembered, although one warned me that their professor quoted the old hippie adage that "those who remembered the sixties weren't really there." The first things that came to mind were the assassinations, the end of idealism and, of course, the drugs, sex and rock and roll.
But reading the McCarthy obits, the real hallmark of the '60s may be something which is sorely lacking today — elected officials with political courage and the expectation among citizens that their leaders will take risks to do what they think is right.
Gene McCarthy was an original. He stayed relevant and controversial until the end. He wrote over twenty books including "Parting Shots from my Brittle Bow: Reflections on American Politics and Life" which was published in January 2005. You could disagree with him and he could be annoying and disappointing. But he called them like he saw them and always with wisdom and wit. And he never mistook a frost heave for a ground swell.
By Dotty Lynch