Thursday, December 15, 2005

More McCarthy, Positive and Double-Plus Un-Positive

Editorialist Keith C. Burris at the Manchester (CT) Journal-Inquirer has won, hands down, the Eugene J. McCarthy Best Obituary sweepstakes, for which the munificent prize is a virtual full-fidelity audio CD of one hand clapping, existentially. Burris also wrote a just and thorough appreciation of him as the preface to McCarthy's last major book, No-Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, the Press, and Reformers. (Crown: 1998. ISBN: 0812930169)

George F. ("Triumph Of The") Will, however, receives a lump of coal. Preferably slingshotted from about 20 feet at the back of his vegetable-marrow head. In order to keep his hands busy instead of performing such a salient, if indictable, public service, the Slangwhanger-in-Chief took Gus Flaubert's hearteningly vicious advice, "When you write a friend's biography, do it as if you were taking revenge for him." Same with defending a man against bad obits. While the counterblast is doubtless incapable of penetrating Will's accustomed carapace of invincible ignorance, the effort seemed worth it. McCarthy deserves this defense and many another honor far beyond our present reach to give him...

Mr. George F. Will:

Given your mastery of Tory flouts and jeers, normally I would not risk breaking a lance with you. But your column today concerned something I actually happen to know about, so I will take the chance. In the manner of that precise exegesis to which you no doubt subject your own work, I will query your use of certain terms and phrases. Possibly I shall have the temerity to suggest emendations.

You assert that Gene McCarthy “craved” the Vice-Presidency in 1964. He told me that President Johnson was certainly worth supporting in 1964, running, as Johnson did, against Barry Goldwater’s expressed intentions of widening the war in Vietnam and of resisting civil rights legislation. But let me ask you this: if it were true, as you imply, that McCarthy only diffidently sought the Presidency in 1968, how can it be that he had inordinately desired the Vice-Presidency only four years earlier? You can properly hold one of these positions or the other, but unless you have been trained in the Alice in Wonderland school of “believ[ing] six impossible things before breakfast,” surely you cannot do both.

You state that “probably” the ills of the Nixon presidency, which you ardently defended, would have been avoided had McCarthy campaigned sooner, or more strongly, for Humphrey. This is one of the hardy canards that decades of determined psephology have been unable to uproot from the public mind.

Nevertheless I shall briefly try. In 1968 George Corley Wallace received 9,901,118 votes or 13.5% of the total, garnering 46 electoral votes. If 5.2% of Wallace’s backers had voted for Humphrey nationally, Humphrey would have won the popular vote. If 38.3% of Wallace’s backers in just four non-segregationist states (Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and Missouri) had voted for Humphrey, Nixon would have lost. In plain fact Wallace elected Nixon, just as Ross Perot elected Bill Clinton.

Note that McCarthy received zero votes and thus cannot justly be said to have affected the outcome in any way. He told me, “I have yet to meet a voter who didn’t vote for Humphrey in ’68 based on my delayed endorsement. I don’t think there were any.”

When you state that Johnson was a New Hampshire write-in the implication is that, given the advantage of being on the ballot, McCarthy ought to have lost to him by less than the actual 7.5% Johnson margin. Or perhaps you mean that McCarthy’s moral victory ought not have had the significance it manifestly did. In either case, permit me to observe that it is in vile taste to use a man’s obituary in order to deprecate his accomplishments. I will add in passing that, when you denigrate “the power of the mere passage of time to sanctify the accidental, even the unreasonable,” you savagely undercut every argument in favor of tradition that you have ever made.

Next you proclaim that ideological fervor among Presidential nominating caucus participants is “not what the Democratic Party needs.” Possibly you wish to reserve ideological fervor for the Republicans, thus producing an imbalance to which you would typically be partial. Moreover, it is a matter of some dispute as to whether an inveterate and unrepentant Republican spokesman such as yourself has any proper conception of, non-adversarial interest in, or claim to an opinion on, what the Democrats need.

You appear to be arguing that the Democrats should limit their nominating venues to primaries in states that are “…representative of America’s demographic complexities.” That bears a perilously close resemblance to a statistically-sampled nominating process, the mathematical basis of which you assaulted when it came to the US Census actually finding out how many Americans there are.

With a little more wit, the paragraph assailing the McCain-Feingold campaign spending law could have come from one of McCarthy’s 1976 Independent Presidential campaign speeches in which he caustically remarked that King George III did not give matching funds to the Revolution. He said it was absurd to complain that L. Clement Stone might have had an influence on Richard Nixon in return for his contributions. “Any influence at all on Nixon was bound to be for the better,” he said.

McCarthy had no trouble with limitless personal contributions, properly reported, because he believed in his moral way that pride among politicians, not greed among their supporters, was the real threat to the Republic. But we have unlimited contributions in effect now anyway, given various loopholes. Until we get full and fair instantaneous internet (not quarterly dead-tree) reporting of all contributions, contributors and their associations, the suspicion is going to remain that – hiding behind defenses of McCarthy’s 1968 insurgency – the real agenda is one of allowing corporate contributions, late filings, and stealth groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Lies.

You proceed to use the phrases “elegant futility” and “liberalism curdled by condescension” in conflating McCarthy with Adlai Stevenson and progressives in general. In a kind of dying fall – evidently in lieu of an actual peroration – you repeat variants of “condescend” twice more over your final paragraphs.

Your charge seems to be that progressives concentrate overmuch on economic justice for American employees of all races and both sexes, exaggerate peace and environmental sustainability as the foundation of prosperity, and insist too strongly on the need for national investment in non-military national needs in health care, education, retirement and urban infrastructure. On your record, you might even object to progressives wanting the US to have what those flaming Founding Revolutionaries, no doubt wimpishly, called “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

Yet progressives' attentiveness to social justice is somehow considered patronizing to, or demeaning and belittling of, ordinary voters. Evidently this is by contrast to the conservative absorption with abortion, guns, gays, flag burning, the made-up “war” on Christmas, and supporting our troops by keeping them over there getting killed.

It is in the nature of wit to be a bit acidic, certainly to be pointed. (As for neutral, blunt wit, well, you may as well talk about Tom DeLay’s morals or some other null quantity.) It is hard to see anything particularly “unpleasant” about McCarthy’s putdown of George Romney. After all, Romney’s lightweight status was confirmed not by McCarthy’s “rinse” remark but by the combined gravity of the journalistic mandarinate, which was outraged at the notion that American generals would try to brainwash visiting dignitaries about our "progress" in Vietnam.

McCarthy’s remarks about Democrats were generally even more devastating than those about Republicans, although Nixon’s fake peace candidacy rightfully drew his ire: “We know Nixon's stuff. He's got a slider. And he's thrown a spitter so many years he's got seniority rights on it.”

Your final paragraph, despite transposing the term “lackadasically” to McCarthy’s post-1968 campaigns, cleverly leaves the impression that you include 1968 under that rubric. Yet his role in 1968 would have taken all the energy anybody had. And when I worked on his staff in 1976 he was far less cavalier about his campaigning than certain columnists are about getting facts and conclusions right. You go on to quote with evident approval a line whose metaphor appears to mean you think McCarthy never tried hard after 1968.

I can assure you, sir, from personal observation, that his humor never masked his seriousness; his existentialism never undercut his Catholicism (nor vice-versa); his poetry never distracted him from his duties; and his dedication to the well-being of the country never counted the cost to himself personally.

This 2005 piece suffers from the same vices as the one you wrote circa 1994 about McCarthy and the Texas House delegation. At his eightieth birthday celebration in 1996, McCarthy said, “George had a piece saying that I was unduly friendly to Texas Congressmen. I'd been in the Congress until 1958 when I went to the Senate, so it was roughly 40 years ago. And George found it out. I don't know what the evidence was, but he found this out.

"Sarah [McLendon] knows we never got along with the Texans very well. She almost got fired in Tyler, or Midland, or Odessa – someplace – because of reporting that we were questioning the Texans' use of migrant workers.

"And I challenged the tidelands oil, I remember, in one of my better speeches. The ordinary claim of states was six miles seaward for tidelands oil, but Texas was claiming twelve miles. And the standard for the six miles was how far you could shoot a cannon in 1806, and I said that even in 1806 a Texas cannon could not be shot twice as far as any other cannon. I don't think George picked that up.

"There were one or two other things [I supported that the Texans didn't like], like deregulating natural gas and actually [also opposing] the depletion allowance. So I thought I had a pretty good record.

"But George pointed out that I ate lunch with Texans. There were some good people there. [Congressmen] Albert Thomas, Wright Patman, John Lyle, Homer Thornberry, and Frank Ikard, whose wife [Jane] is here tonight, were great friends of mine.

"The standard for eating at the Texans' table had nothing to do with ideology or politics. It was a question, really, of whether you could eat the red peppers. I had a very good stomach, and they liked an outsider, once in a while, to put them to the test.

"That was the whole thing. And George has oversimplified it, and exposed me as having eaten lunch at the Texas table quite regularly, and supposedly having been corrupted by that.”

It took me a few more words to respond than it originally took you, but you have the twin advantages of long practice with, and a high salary for, your impressionistic compressions. As a workman skilled in innuendo, misdirection, maldeduction, non-germaneness and unverifiability you are to be commended for your unremitting fidelity to your tools. But someone long ago should have taught you that slovenly writing can eventually ruin your reputation. If you can’t get the facts right, you’ve probably also missed the point.

Faithfully yours,
The Slangwhanger-in-Chief


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