The Past 50 Years and the Next Millenium

By Eugene McCarthy

This is the second installment of remarks of former Senator Eugene J. McCarthy on the occasion of his eightieth birthday on March 29.

In reflection, I get rather strange requests. Recently I've had three. One is to make my projection of the millennium. The administration is only projecting a balanced budget by 1997, I think, or '99, or the year 2002, which is a limited kind of projection. If you don't make it, it's not so serious. But to be asked to do the millennium is to lay down a real challenge. I had another request a week ago as to what changes I'd like to see in the Ten Commandments. And the third one was did I have any advice for children.

And I worked all of these out, in a way. To children I said: "Don't let them read William Bennett's Book of Virtues." That's the first thing.

And the Ten Commandments - I've had some questions about them for a long time. And I've suggested to them I thought there were two of them that were unnecessary. Someone said, "Moses had a little extra stone so he added the Ninth and the Tenth." But he didn't place them in the right place. I think that, if you've already committed adultery, and murdered somebody, there's no point in having someone come along and tell you you shouldn't have thought about it. You could either eliminate the two, or else move them up in the order, so you can pick them up along the way; and you can say, "Well, I've been warned on this." And so it runs.

And so far as the millennium - I don't want to get into that. But as I look back on the fifty years that I was in politics, I've divided it into two periods. One is BCC, which means Before Common Cause, and the other is ACC, After Common Cause, or YJG, in the Year of John Gardner. You get politicians talking about doing away with things as they were. This meeting [the birthday reception] is pretty much a meeting of people who really were kind of satisfied with things as they were back in 1950, 1960, and 1970. We had Donald Dawson here, who was in the Truman Administration ... I wanted to point him out as a person who was there when the important work of that administration was carried out: the reorganization of the government, which had been thrown into some disorder because of World War Two, and also the establishment of the United States' position in the world with the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and so on. And Donald was there each year, that's ten years of that Before Common Cause.

The second ten years is represented here by Clayton Fritchie. Clayton was the right hand man, and left hand man, for Adlai Stevenson, who for ten years really gave us the word on what Democrats should be, and what the world was all about.

And the third person who's here, who took care of the next decade, is Mike Mansfield, who was never given enough credit for what he did as Majority Leader in the Senate. It was while he was Majority Leader - and it wasn't all easy - we passed the Civil Rights legislation and we passed Medicare and Medicaid, and bits of other good things.

People oversimplify Medicare. In those hearings we had to stand up against testimony ... And the Indiana Undertakers Association's testimony was that they didn't want to disturb the traditional doctor-patient relationship. It was opposition like that that we had to deal with. I suggested in '92 in New Hampshire that they were probably over simplifying how people felt about Medicare. And I cited the undertakers from Indiana as a kind of warning to them. They didn't take my warning, and you know what happened between '93 and '94.

In the years after the coming of Common Cause things began to really come apart. And it was manifested in two or three ways. One was that it was a kind of process of purifying, or perfecting, the procedures. It was sort of no-fault government. It was manifest, I suppose, first, in the reorganization of Congress. The Congress as we knew it had committee chairmen. We knew where they were, we knew what their power was, we knew what their responsibility was. They reorganized Congress into ineptitude, is what they did.

That didn't quite do it, so they said, 'Well, we've got to have a code of ethics, since if these were good people they wouldn't do bad things.' So we got a code of ethics which was going to make up for the mistakes that were made. That didn't quite work so we went to the Federal Election law which said in effect, "We're going to elect nothing but good people, or at least, we're going to so purify them that they will not be subject to any temptation of the flesh."

I suggested that they were misreading the Scriptures. Common Cause said, "The root of all evil is money." Well, that's a bad translation, first of all. If you translate it properly, it sort of says, "Money is the lowest form of temptation." You don't corrupt really dangerous people with money. It's when they begin to look for power that you're getting into difficulty. It's much more corrupting than money or financial reward. And beyond that, when you get presidents speaking about their place in history, you've moved into the third level.

It's much better to keep it at the level of finance. You know, the temptation of Christ was to change stones into bread, but that was the first temptation. Then things moved on up. They cited in the federal election law [discussions], "Think of how Richard Nixon has been influenced by Clement Stone, who gave him two million dollars." I said, "Well, you know, any outside influence on Nixon would have to be good." So you get this kind of irrational stuff. What do you want, pure Richard Nixon? Nobody did. But that's the kind of thing Common Cause would say, "Yeah, Richard Nixon was corrupted by Clement Stone." You have to have water of roughly equal pressure on both sides of the dam.

This was the kind of issue we raised with Jim Buckley and the lawyers we had. It was so irrational - and still is - the idea that you have the government control the process by which the government is chosen. It's a complete contradiction in itself, you know. But here it was. The theory would be all right if you had a good government when the government started controlling the process. But when you started with a government which Common Cause said was corrupt, you build corruption into the system, and you never break out of it.

We pointed out simple things like the American Revolution wasn't financed with matching funds. George the Third wasn't called up and told, "We've got some action here we'd like you to support." In fact, it was supported by some rather large contributors, and even by foreign contributions. In this case we've been honoring Lafayette ever since. But almost every major change in the country that was kind of revolutionary on the liberal side was financed with large contributions. Instead, we come along and say, "No more of that! You've got to do it with matching funds," or, as it turned out, with corporate contributions.

It was a high point of our argument. We said, if we do this, we should change our Declaration of Independence, and a lot of Fourth of July speeches, because you still wind them up with Jefferson, saying, "We pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." And if Gardner had been there when that line was written he'd say, "Well, that's pretty good, Tom, but why don't you change it to say, 'We pledge our lives, our sacred honor, and up to a thousand dollars?' " That's a kind of full measure of patriotic devotion. And this was supposed to take care of it.

Then they began to index things. You could index Social Security, you could index salaries, you could index all pensions, you could index taxes against bracket creep. Whatever it was, just index it. Indexing is a temptation. First of all, it's sort of irrational. But it's presented as though the person doing it knows how things are going to go. You can kind of do a graph of indexing. Almost anything that can be presented in politics in a graph is, I think, pretty suspect. But there it was, and you know where we are now. And you really shouldn't have to even argue about it. Take a look at what's happened to government and to politics in the roughly twenty years since all of these reforms were put into place.

Next: No Farewells

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