On the Passing of Gene McCarthy

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Mr. Craig is Executive Director of the National Coalition for History, a Washington D.C. based history advocacy organization.

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Visitors who venture into my office at the American Historical Association often comment on a framed, signed print of a poem entitled “The Aardvark” written by former Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who died this past Saturday. Below the poem is a frayed photograph that shows a picture of a very young Bruce Craig standing in a row of campaign volunteers next to the vigorous, smiling McCarthy. It was taken back in 1976 when I worked on what was the then former Minnesota senator’s second independent bid for the presidency.

As a politician McCarthy was a strange duck ­ as Jon Weiner of The Nation has characterized him, “a mysterious and frustrating figure,” and indeed he was. But irrespective of his shortcomings as a politician, he was a statesman like no other that Washington D.C. has known, past or present. For those of us who knew him, or opted to work for him on one or more of what we often knew were to be losing campaigns, news of his death brought back vivid memories.

When I came to know McCarthy, his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1968 that had galvanized anti-Vietnam war sentiment was long over. He had retreated to the backwoods of Virginia where he was writing poetry, thoughtful and contemplative books on the nature of American history and political commentary; among them was my favorite, a slim but brilliantly insightful volume, Frontiers of American Democracy. The ‘76 campaign that brought him out of retirement and me into the political fray for the first time was even more of a shoe-string volunteer effort than was his ‘68 bid that had rallied legions of activists. This time around his central campaign issue was not a war but campaign finance reform and his position seemed more in line with the views of his conservative Woodville, Virginia neighbor James Kilpatrick than the liberals who McCarthy is generally lumped together with. In any event, I volunteered to work on the former senator’s behalf and was selected by the campaign manager to serve as McCarthy’s chauffeur, quasi press secretary, and general all around gofer for a few days during a campaign swing in southern California.

Between long hauls and grueling driving that took us from the Biltmore Hotel where he breakfasted with Gore Vidal to a noon fund-raiser at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, then on to several campaign stops at various universities that wound up at an evening fund-raising party being held at his daughter and folksinger Peter Yarrow’s seaside home in Malibu, I had the opportunity to have several long conversations with him. We discussed a variety of topics ­ not just his reflections on history and politics but such topics as Catholicism, Irishness, and even omelets. I shall never forget his soft-spoken manner, his wry wit and thoughtful consideration and treatment of wide-eyed volunteers who had squeezed him into the back seat of a Fiat sedan that was far too cramped a vehicle for his long legs.

Since its publication, I have been unable to bring myself to read Dominic Sandbrook’s biography that McCarthy characterized as “nearly libelous” and I doubt that I ever will. Instead, I intend to add the last title to what is my nearly complete first edition signed run of virtually every one of McCarthy’s twenty or so books. I deliberately put off purchasing Parting Shots From My Brittle Bow: Reflections on American Political Life, a collection of essays and poems that was published just this last January knowing that McCarthy was nearly 90 and not in the best of health, and obviously was aware of his own pending mortality. I figure that given its title, the Aardvark would have wanted me to wait to read his last book until he had passed, so that I too would be able to reflect on his life. “I am alone, in the land of the aardvarks... I am looking for you.”

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