I was only five at the time McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign became a fulcrum of the anti-war movement, and in the process, took down Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. But I’ve often looked back on that era and wondered whether I would have been caught up in his passion.
Indeed, the McCarthy campaign was so inspiring, and the times so politically divisive, that nearly four decades later, the large, Irish Catholic family I married into still celebrates the family split between the Robert F. Kennedy and McCarthy camps, with banners and words flying every St. Patty’s Day. The squabble has long since been dulled by time, whiskey and family ties into little more than an amusing reenactment, but knowing my history — and knowing this family — I imagine the contemporaneous debate must have been quite intense and entertaining.
As for me, my impressions of “the good McCarthy” are all second hand. He’s always struck me as a kind of ideal… a candidate willing to cite philosophy or poetry on the campaign trail, instead of just spouting focus-group-filtered talking points, perhaps most famously flummoxing his audience by quoting the ancient Greek historian Plutarch:
“They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage or military campaign, something to be done with some particular end in view.”
In an age when high-priced consultants package their well-groomed candidates with petty, single-issue causes like tax cuts or gay marriage or a nebulous “war on terror”, one can’t help but pine for a politician more familiar with Putarch than with pollsters. From what I knew of the man, I suppose McCarthy might have despised the type of calculating, partisan politics in which I traffic. Still, that doesn’t stop me from longing for the type of ideal he represented to his fervent supporters.