Help wanted: a gadfly

THERE have been a couple of parties lately in honor of Eugene J. McCarthy, arguably the best-fielding first baseman in the history of Minnesota's Great Soo League. Big Gene could also hammer a fastball, they say, but the curve gave him fits, and so he became a professor and eventually entered the game of politics, where they throw nothing but curves. Students of both national pastimes will recall that, after serving as United States senator, the ex-first baseman went after the presidency -- swinging for the fences, so to speak.

Ah, the spitballs and other illegal pitches they fire at the head of a poor fellow who dares to do that! But life makes men durable in Great Soo country, and the occasion for the recent parties -- in New York and Washington -- was McCarthy's 70th birthday.

Still, neither a birthday nor another baseball season nor the jollity of politics gets to the heart of why in this troubled spring people should want to celebrate a man whose finest hour was another troubled spring, that of 1968, when he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, and lost.

Or did he?

The latter-day hurrahs for Eugene McCarthy cannot be explained unless one understands how remarkably he served his country in 1968 in the process of losing -- and why the absence of anybody like him in 1986 is our serious loss today.

McCarthy did a radical thing 18 years ago. He became the first national figure to voice deep, consistent doubts about the war in Vietnam.

He was the loyal opposition when to be in the opposition was to be presumed disloyal. He brought questions about the war up from the underground into the forum of mainstream politics.

He did this, not because he was a radical -- on the contrary.

The Gulf of Tonkin resolution horrified the strict constitutionalist in McCarthy because it bypassed the due processes of democracy concerning the declaration and waging of war.

In 1968, as in 1986, events seemed to be running away from due process. There was no time, it was said, to reflect, no time to debate alternatives, no time to do anything but act and react.

In the heat of that very hot moment, McCarthy did something more courageous than lie down in front of a tank, as student protestors did. He stood his ground in front of an administration that could no longer stop itself as it rolled toward its own self-destruction -- and he forced the juggernaut to talk.

McCarthy is by no means a pacifist -- he voted for his share of defense appropriations. But he remains convinced that power, in war or in peace, is best exercised by those who do not seek it -- by those whose first thought is to be ``accountable,'' a favorite McCarthy term.

The greatest sobriety, the greatest sanity, it seems, is required to resist the intoxicating madness of history.

A witty and charming man who has stubbornly, almost perversely refused to use these gifts for political advantage, McCarthy detests charisma (``with charisma in attendance, one can make mistakes of judgment without being challenged, commit immoral acts without being criticized'').

McCarthy in 1968 -- holding up Vietnam to ``reasoned judgment'' and the ``mutable application of immutable moral principles'' -- may have been the last leader to make the behavior of a government answerable to private ethical values.

Which brings us back to the spring of 1986, an era of rather naive power-politics when morality -- even the highly realistic morality of a McCarthy -- is regarded as softness, and policy is left to the technicians.

In the aftermath of the raid upon Libya, we have no end of State Department explainers, Pentagon strategists, and think-tank specialists on terrorism. The ubiquitous expert, analyzing the effect on oil prices and tourist trade, commands network news shows and Op-Ed pages. But one has to stumble upon the dissenting comments of a maverick like Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut or a short-item writer in the New Yorker's ``Talk of the Town'' in order to find anything like the application of reason and morality to public events that Eugene McCarthy made the very basis of a presidential campaign in 1968.

It is not just a question of which specific political decision is ``right'' or ``wrong,'' but that the question should be asked -- in the fullest sense. The risks can be tragic when American pragmatism proceeds without the loyal opposition of American idealism, and vice versa.

This is our true two-party system.

For now there is no one to play Eugene McCarthy, the voice of the reasoning conscience.

And for now there is a silence where no silence should be. A Wednesday and Friday column

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Help wanted: a gadfly
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today