A legend's perspective

That very wise, very witty politician, Eugene McCarthy, was a Monitor lunch guest right after his new book, "An American Bestiary" (Lone Oak Press), was published last spring. And the journalists in attendance were laughing at the "political animals" Mr. McCarthy (and his illustrator, Christopher Millis) had found lurking in their imaginations.

There was, for example, "Inflation." "Knowledgeable observers," writes McCarthy in this treasure of a book, "have positively identified only a few species of this unloved but indestructible creature. Two are 'Creeping Inflation' and 'Galloping Inflation.' Nothing has been found in-between." Here "Inflation" is portrayed by Mr. Millis as a big, goat-like creature running at full speed past the Capitol.

One of McCarthy's most prized "captures" is "The Gathering Momentum."

"Until it is gathered," writes this political sage, "A 'momentum' is hard to identify."

Some of the other rare creatures portrayed in the book are "The Viable Alternative," "The Bloated Bureaucracy," "The Economic Indicator," "The Mandate," and "The Mounting Crisis."

McCarthy is a critic of President Clinton's frequent travels, at home and abroad. Comparing Mr. Clinton with the kangaroo, McCarthy writes: "The kangaroo often has reason for hopping. But sometimes without any apparent reason he just hops and hops."

We journalists met with McCarthy for more than to note the publication of a funny, perceptive book: We were there to honor a political legend. A few of us there had even covered that 1968 New Hampshire primary where, picking up the anti-Vietnam War support, he almost beat President Johnson, making it abundantly clear Johnson was vulnerable to defeat on the war issue.

By running in that New Hampshire primary, the then-Senator McCarthy had taken on a task that no other Democrat seemed to want. No one, including Bobby Kennedy, was willing to challenge a president who, in the polls, still looked unbeatable.

But McCarthy was deeply opposed to the war. And he was willing to sacrifice his own career, if necessary, in challenging the war president. It turned out, of course, the Minnesota senator had grabbed hold of an issue with wide and growing appeal.

Above all, during the primary period, McCarthy presented himself and his ideas in such a literate, persuasive way that he won support from millions of voters, all across the nation and from both parties.

Robert Kennedy wasn't content to let McCarthy carry the challenge against Johnson. Following the New Hampshire primary, he came to a Monitor breakfast and, before it was over, had disclosed that he was getting into the presidential race.

At the recent book-related lunch we had with McCarthy, he mentioned "that famous Kennedy breakfast," laughing about the incident. But back in 1968, he had been quite bitter about Kennedy's entry into primaries. McCarthy believed then (and many leading Democrats agreed with him) that he'd earned the right to be the candidate who challenged Johnson on the war issue. Also, earlier, Kennedy had been a backer of the war.

I asked McCarthy if after all these years he had "mellowed" in his feeling about Kennedy. He said he had nothing more to say on that - that in the past he'd written about that. He shrugged his shoulders. And we turned to other subjects.

Here, in brief, are some of McCarthy's observations that we heard: There are no big issues today, nothing like the Vietnam, Joe McCarthy, or communism issues of yesterday - so candidates are forced to look around to find issues that separate them. There shouldn't be debates - voters know the candidates well enough without debates. The two-term presidential-limitation amendment should be scrapped - it makes the president a lame duck for much of his second term.

At one point, I asked McCarthy: "When, in your view, was the last time we had a 'great' president."

"Franklin D. Roosevelt," he said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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