Saturday, December 10, 2005

Not Close, and No Cigar Either

A corrective review of

Dominic Sandbrook, Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism (Knopf Borzoi: New York) 2004, ISBN 1-4000-4105-8, $25.95
which deliberately contains, exaggerates, and repeats most of the erroneous conventional wisdom about Gene McCarthy that was heaped upon him in revenge for daring to hold the Democratic party responsible for the war in Vietnam.

Using Senator Eugene McCarthy to explain liberal Democrats of the last half of the twentieth century is like using nitroglycerine to explain liquids. Yes, the individual forms part of a class; but in these cases the individual is far too, well, individual -- and the class far too disparate -- for the illustration to provide much insight. By running for president in 1968, McCarthy challenged the country to put an end to a war that was both wrong and unwinnable; doing so, he salvaged a portion of the national soul. Yet such action by him was neither predictable, inevitable, nor a consequence of his being a postwar American liberal.

As Louis Menand noted in his otherwise equivocal review of Sandbrook in the New Yorker, McCarthy's political discourse is founded on "distributive justice" and other Thomistic formulations of social responsibility. It is not that McCarthy "doesn't get" capitalism, as the Weekly Standard weakly charged; it’s that he approaches it from within a larger framework, and sees it as being yet another ideology. From such a perspective, McCarthy's countervailing anticommunism was inherent and, despite Sandbrook, not a matter of convenience.

Those who come from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party, as the late Senator Paul Wellstone put it, have traditionally been accused of divisiveness. This is an old trick by the powerful to blame the powerless for resisting what is being done to them. To listen to his enemies, McCarthy should have had no trouble against the combined opposition of the Kennedys, the then-pro-war New York Times and Washington Post, and the entire US government led by President Lyndon Johnson. There was as well as the vast military-industrial right wing to line whose pockets Johnson held that odious Asian war: bellico-socialism for the engineering classes. But no: it is customarily, and in Sandbrook yet again, asserted that some character flaw, or many of them, in McCarthy prevented his winning.

The inherent vice of Sandbrook's book, which was partially funded by the Lyndon Baines Johnson foundation, mirrors that of most journalism about McCarthy; they call McCarthy a "maverick" as if there were a herd to which he should have belonged. If the financing weren't a dead giveaway, Sandbrook had earlier written of "a long tradition of Democratic failures, the Adlai Stevensons and Eugene McCarthys of history: professorial, moralistic, aloof, self-indulgent, unwilling to get their hands dirty in the political arena, and ultimately ineffectual."

Alas, wrong on every count, even if applied to President Woodrow Wilson, for whom the formula was originally fitted up. This anti-liberal boilerplate as applied to Wilson, Stevenson or McCarthy is merely the toxic spewage of the false friend, "the smiler with the knife beneath the cloak" as Chaucer put it, in which position most "moderate" journalists and academics stand in relationship to genuine liberals.

Nobody up until an anonymous Wall Street Journal article in December 1967 had called McCarthy lazy; nobody has stopped since. (Mostly this stemmed from the Journal's influential, if shabby, confusion between "number of votes attended" and "amount of real work done" although neither is, in fact, deducible from the other.) The first man in Congress to debate Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin one-on-one was Rep. Gene McCarthy, and of the two, who do you suppose was the more "moralistic"? LBJ had taught high school, and all his life was far more "professorial" in his demands for abject followership than the intellectually curious McCarthy. If it is "aloofness" to resent journalists who fail to do their homework, then McCarthy is entitled. The "self-indulgence" charge is always connected with McCarthy's poetry, as though poetry detracted from his seriousness or his intensity on public issues. As for "unwilling to get his hands dirty," in the absence of a vast personal fortune you do not get elected seven times to national office and run for president without doing plenty of heavy lifting.

Sandbrook's crabbed version of McCarthy was a History Book Club Main Selection. This just demonstrates how ill-documented the sixties still are. Despite their centrality in determining national consciousness for thirty years thence, the sixties were, and remain, too hot to touch in any form save journalistic controversy. Truly the best of the work on the sixties was done at the time, such as Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson & Bruce Page's 1969 An American Melodrama, while the toll of the rest is sparse. The last good book about McCarthy was Albert Eisele's 1979 Almost to the Presidency, and half of it was about Hubert Humphrey.

In fact, the sixties are like 1848 was in Europe -- the energy from their participants' enforced diaspora repopulated the world, spread throughout society, yet took power nowhere. From such an official defeat, however, arose a thrust toward renewed political change that is not over yet. If McCarthy's helping cause that was being "ineffectual," then I'm a Dutchman.

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