Politics in a Secular World

By Eugene McCarthy

Remarks of former Senator Eugene J. McCarthy on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, given at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, Washington DC, March 29, 1996.

As some of you know, I'm running kind of a campaign against undeserved thanks. I'm especially reminded of it when I see the Emmies. Everyone who wins an award thanks his supporting cast, his producer, his father and mother, and almost everybody else. And all the basketball players do the same. I guess it's all right in those areas, but I think, in politics, we really ought to look to commendation, rather than to thanks. I like to find a scriptural support if I can. I note that in the Bible - pretty much, now that we've got that scripture shouter Pat Buchanan, we all have to be a little bit more alert - the Lord thanked only God, and commended all other people. So I accept what people thank me for as simply a commendation. ...

I go on to some of the political campaigns. I don't have to talk much about 1968 because most of you were there, and you've heard people speak about it. I like to, I won't say disqualify myself, but to argue that it was not really a personal decision, and this sort of gives you kind of an excuse. It sort of came out of what I thought the Senate should have done, and that, if the Senate as a whole would not work, an individual senator still had the responsibility to the institution.

I suppose there is one point that I could make about my career: I usually tried to emphasize the institutional function and purpose of what we were doing. It gave you some added strength. In your defense you could say, "Well, the institution was failing."

In 1974-75 with the help of [Senator] Jim Buckley who is here, and Bryce Clagget, John Bolton, and some help from the New York Civil Liberties Union, we took a case to the Supreme Court on the federal election law. We failed, for the most part. I think that probably the most serious effect on politics and government in this country resulted from the Supreme Court's not having sustained us as we brought the case in court. It changed politics and it changed government, and we suffer from it today. It [Buckley v. Valeo] prepared way for the kind of gridlock that we have.

Finally in '92 I initiated a campaign which got limited attention. I don't know what happened. I was trying figure out how the media - especially the New York Times and the Washington Post - how they figure time. As long as I was within the range of the three score years and ten that is allowed to ordinary men, they gave me some attention. But when we moved into the next ten years-which is reserved for people whom the Bible says are willing to bear pain and suffering-why, they lost me. I was trying to figure out if this is a standard they've adopted. They don't even go as far as the scriptures have. They arbitrarily say seventy years, although I wondered about it, because they gave some support to George Bush, and I think they're supporting [Senator Bob] Dole, or at least they're recognizing him. So it was rather a personal kind of thing.

The Post is a slightly different paper from the Times. I think the Post is more honest, and the Times may be more truthful. It's a kind of difficult distinction. But the Times, every day you read the Times you seem to accept the masthead declaration that it has "All the news that's fit to print." And you know that that's not so. So it's a basic kind of dishonesty. I will occasionally ask a Times writer how he can stand do it every day. I even feel guilty when I buy a Times. In the case of the Post, it doesn't make any such claims. That doesn't necessarily mean it's more truthful, but at least it's more honest. It's the kind of distinction you get to making. I noticed that in this context, Jimmy Carter, when he became president, said, "I won't lie to you." He was succeeding Nixon, who said, "I will tell you truth," which, relatively speaking, gave the advantage to Carter. I thought he was more honest. You have to be able to make small distinctions in some of these fields to carry on.

Well, the Post broke the rule once, about a year and a half ago. It wasn't really the Post, it was George Will, and I understand the Post doesn't necessarily take responsibility for a columnist; it's a sort of reserved area. But George - columnists like to do this, they like to find out something in the past or something that nobody else knows, as though this were significant - George had a piece saying that I was unduly friendly to Texas Congressmen. I'd been in the Congress until 1958 when I went to the Senate, so it was roughly 40 years ago. And George found it out. I don't know what the evidence was, but he found this out. Sarah [McLendon] knows we never got along with the Texans very well. She almost got fired in Tyler, or Midland, or Odessa - someplace - because of reporting that we were questioning the Texans' use of migrant workers.

And I challenged the tidelands oil, I remember, in one of my better speeches. The ordinary claim of states was six miles seaward for tidelands oil, but Texas was claiming twelve miles. And the standard for the six miles was how far you could shoot a cannon in 1806, and I said that even in 1806 a Texas cannon could not be shot twice as far as any other cannon. I don't think George picked that up. There were one or two other things, like deregulating natural gas and actually [also] the depletion allowance. So I thought had a pretty good record. But George pointed out that I ate lunch with Texans. There were some good people there - [Congressmen] Albert Thomas, Wright Patman, John Lyle, Homer Thornberry, and Frank Ikard, whose wife [Jane] is here tonight, were great friends of mine. The standard, really, for eating at the Texans' table, had nothing to do with ideology or politics. It was a question, really, of whether you could eat the red peppers. I had a very good stomach, and they liked an outsider, once in a while, to put them to the test. That was the whole thing. And George has oversimplified it, and exposed me as having eaten lunch at the Texas table quite regularly, and supposedly having been corrupted by that.

The second break [came when] I got a call, about the 15th of March this year, and they said, "The Washington Post has a piece that calls you a son of a bitch." Well, I thought, maybe I'd done something that had pleased [Ambassador] Bob Strauss. I couldn't think of what I'd done that made Bob happy. But that's what he calls himself - and he's his own best friend. If Bob gives you that kind of a name, you figure that you've been taken in, and you're one of the circle. And I was pleased to accept that.

But then I checked the paper, and found it wasn't Bob. It was maybe a letter to the editor from someone whose last name was Ward, but they defined him as "a West Coast writer." Now, I don't know what that means. Was that a credit to him, or was it kind of discounting what they'd done? He'd gone to the Rhode Island School of Design: that's a real preparation for political commentary. They had about three protective lines in the Post, and the final one was [when] they quoted an anonymous campaign worker. I've never believed in anonymous senators, or comments about senators that were anonymous, but this was an anonymous campaign worker. And he said that I was not just "a son of a bitch" but "a lazy son of a bitch." So that was the second break I'd had in the Washington Post, so far as I know, in the decade following the completion of my three score years and ten.

And it sort of set in. I suppose it's psychological. I've been kind of waiting to outlast some people who were, not enemies, but not really my supporters. I was counting on my father's longevity - which was 98 - and about the time I had begun to think I was going to make it to that space, why, all of these people began to become foundations. And I had to give up. Once you become a foundation you live forever. And I was trying to do it just on the basis of natural strength without any kind of legal support. So that was gone.

I've kind of watched my ego disappear over these years. In 1970 I left the Senate and I gave up my title. In 1976 some of my former supporters ran an ad attacking me for running as an independent. That wasn't so bad. But they took away my first name. They called me McCarthy, and they gave me a singular pronoun, which is some kind of identification. And I thought this was kind of unfair, because if your name is McCarthy, you really kind of want a first name to go with it. This is kind of a low down trick. So there my first name was gone.

So I went on without that for a while until '92, when the Democratic National Committee's appeal for funds came out. They listed six potential candidates, or candidates, and then they had a category called "others". And I remembered - you know, I talked to [then DNC Chairman] Ron Brown early, and told him I don't want to get into this unless I'm going to be treated decently. And he said, "Oh we're going to treat you like all the others." And that's right. The "others" were an interesting group. They had Mr. Fisher who invented the ball-point pen, and the man who was going to win with t-shirts. And four or five more. But the break point - and I appreciate [former Virginia Governor] Doug Wilder coming, because Doug was the only one of the non-others who sort of apologized to me. He said, "I feel kind of sorry that you didn't make the cut." And I think he actually said, "I feel more affiliation with you, even though you're among the others, than I do with some who are not among the others, over here on this side." And so we've had a rather close friendship since Doug gave me that kind of sympathetic support.

Well, that was about where we left it until the campaign got going. Early in the campaign the New York Times had something that was called the profiles of the six candidates. I was not included, but Doug was. I didn't mind what they did. Actually, I kind of thought he was the best of the six, especially since he was sympathetic. But they included profiles such as Jerry Brown. On foreign policy, he had spent two weeks in Calcutta with Mother Theresa, and he spent six months in a Zen monastery in Japan. I was going to claim my Benedictine experience should be counted in there, but I never like to bring religion into politics if I can help it.

They didn't say, "six of the candidates;" the Times said, "the six." So I was nonexistent. Six months later we were down to the New York primary and they had another article saying, "the three remaining candidates," and they named them. Well, I was remaining. But they only counted three as being remaining. It's a great power that the Times has. I anticipate what they might do with my obituary. They'd say that "for six months in '92, he was gone. He just disappeared." I'd anticipate that we ought to change the Freedom of Information Act to say that anyone who knows that someone has written an obituary about him has a right to see it before he dies. This [would be] a kind of expansion of individual freedom and individual liberty.

So this is the Times in contrast with the Post. I hesitate, as I said earlier, to challenge the Times because of the claims it makes. And I wondered what their strength was. And I concluded they got their editorial power, an absolute power, when Moses came down from the mountain with the first unsigned editorial. And they've been kind of running on that ever since. The Post doesn't have that kind of basic foundation. They sort of bought their position. And sometimes they pass it down on the female side, which is not quite valid in the thought of some genealogists and people who study religious succession and the lines of it.

There's another point of, I suppose you'd call it, the inferiority complex on the part of the Post. They have an ombudsperson. The Times doesn't have anything like that. It's assumed that they've not made mistakes that can be corrected, at least on a weekly basis. In the longer run, they might. About every five years they - now poor Jimmy Reston is gone - but every five years he'd write a book kind of examining the conscience of the Times. He did the last one in '91, and it's a good serious work. He concluded that the Times has done a few things that were wrong; but he gives them a kind of Presbyterian absolution, in which you absolve yourself, and you go on with your work.

I see some Boston Globe people here. I always worry about them because they used to print things that weren't fit to print, and they've now been bought by the Times. And I wonder if the Times is going to give them a little bit of leeway and say, "We'll let you print a few things that aren't quite fit to print." I don't want to overdo this press thing, but I was kind of hoping that along about March the 15th, both the Post and the Times, in a kind of purgation, might explain why, on March the 16th or 17th in 1968, they printed stories describing a significant military victory in Viet Nam in which one hundred and twenty-eight Viet Cong were killed. That was the My Lai massacre, as they reported it back in 1968. You'd think that, especially since [Defense Secretary Robert] MacNamara did his act, that the Times and the Post might have been moved to make some sort of explanation on that basis.

The Past 50 Years and the Next Millenium

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.

No Farewells

I don't know whether I'm trying be constructive; well, I try to be. Some of you want me to give a kind of farewell address, but after Al [Eisele]'s reading from Plutarch, why, I'm not going to do that. I've looked at farewell addresses. There's only two that get much attention. They haven't really had much impact.

One was George Washington's. He warned us against factions, and the development of political parties. And he was supported by John Adams, who said that the worst thing we could have under our constitution was to have two strong political parties controlling our politics. And two hundred years later, in '74-'75, why, we formalized what Adams said was the worst thing we could have, by legalizing the Republican party and the Democratic party in the federal election law.

The second farewell address to receive attention was Eisenhower's. That was when he warned us of the existence of the military-industrial complex. He didn't tell us that it was developed while he was president. If he'd have given, in his Inaugural Address - if he'd quoted deTocqueville and said, "What we've got to look out for is the development of a military-industrial complex," it would have been a great speech. But to come on when he was leaving and to say, "I just want you to know what we've left you, and you'd better beware of it ..."

And we are aware of it, but it's almost too late do anything about it. We'd cut the defense budget to fifteen billion dollars in 1950-51, before the Korean War. During the war it went up to forty [billion] and it never came down. Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred billion dollars a year, and it was built into the system in the roughly eight years of the Eisenhower presidency. So, no farewell address, just to remind you of how inappropriate they are.

I thought I'd take a look at some of the heavy words I've spoken over the years to see what impact they had. It's pretty minimal. Very early in my career I was concerned about the justification of ends on the basis of improper means and how bad it was. I quoted T.S. Eliot, who said, "The last temptation is the great betrayal to do the right thing for the wrong reason," which is pretty serious stuff. I wrote a piece, and I think I even said it somewhere, that it's really a serious temptation to think you can get away by trying to justify means because of the end. "It's like writing a death warrant in invisible ink," I said. "It would be blackened by the acid of history, and eventually, if you have a judgment of nations like you do of people, you stand condemned in your own hand." And I think it's true, but it's not going to change the world very much.

The second was lines from Robert Lowell, who said, "The worst sound in the universe is the harsh, high laughter of the innocent and the amoral rejoicing over their victories." I had never heard it until one day I was up in the CBS studios. I was walking down the hall with someone, and I heard this laughter coming out of a room. To myself I said, "That's the harsh, high laughter I've been looking for, trying to find it." And I said, "Who's in that room?" He said, "Oh, that's the Sixty Minutes crew. They've just found something to rejoice over, and they're happy about it." And it's still a thought that's worth taking care of, I guess.

I did one kind of heavy thing. In the 1964 nomination [convention speech for Vice President] Hubert Humphrey, I was talking about [Republican Senator] Barry Goldwater and his people. And I said something about "Their calendars have no days, and their clocks have no hands; and in the vague light let through by a sun veiled by the ashes of Hiroshima, the pale horse of death and the white horse of victory are indistinguishable." And I think that is still true. Finally, I used Walt Whitman as a kind of an end of a speech I gave, about when he called for orators and musicians and poets to kind of justify the country.

But you can't make that kind of appeal now. You say, really the people that are going to justify you are spin doctors - you can call them up - and pollsters, and something they have now called facilitators, and synthesizers. This is the kind of appeal that's made now instead of to substantive things like poetry, and oratory, and good belief.

I'm a little bit - not despondent, but I listed some sort of practical things that are more useful probably than these proud, if not careless, words that I'd leave with you. One is a set of things that an old Congressman - there was an old New Dealer, I think it was Brad Spencer - Newly Dowton got a few of us together, young men - and he said, "I'll tell you, young men, you may make a mistake once in a while, but vote against everything that starts with "re." He said, "Vote against all reorganizations." This was 1949. "Vote against all recodifications," he said. 'Vote against all resolutions." They hadn't started to reinvent government then but he would have said, "Vote against all reinventions." And, he said, "Vote against all Republicans." That was the last word and rather a good bit of advice.

He didn't say it, but others said, "Be highly suspicious of someone of whom they say, 'He makes no small mistakes,' or, 'He has a steel-trap mind.' "

When [Robert] MacNamara came on they said, "He makes no small mistakes." He acknowledged that, and so everybody was watching him for small mistakes, and big things happened. So this warning was, "Beware of small mistakes."

I don't like to belabor MacNamara, but to bear out this point, he testified one day, and [Senator] Wayne Morse asked him, "How many tanks are there in Latin America?" And MacNamara didn't look it up, didn't ask anybody, and he said "Nine hundred and seventy-four." Wayne said, "That's pretty precise." And then without another question MacNamara said, "That's sixty percent as much as a single country, Bulgaria, has."

I had resolved earlier never to ask him any more questions, but this was too much, and I said I was interested in that answer. And he said, "Well, that's right." I said, "Well, I agree with nine hundred and seventy-four, but why did you tell us it was sixty percent of the number in Bulgaria?" And he said, "Because it is." And I said, "Well, why Bulgaria? Do you, in your world, count tanks relative to Bulgaria?" I said, "Is there a kind of Bulgarian absolute, as far as tanks are concerned?" And he said, "If there were, I would tell you about it."

And I realized then I learned what a true fact was. If you take two things that are not true and juxtapose them, then, you've got to believe they're true, because they seem so precise. I mean, nine hundred and seventy-four and sixty percent of Bulgaria: You say, "That must be a true fact."

Well, anyway, another category is ... be highly suspicious if an appointment is made and they say, "It's the best person for the job." Harry Truman never appointed the best person. Harry would appoint a good person. And if he wanted to emphasize it he'd say, "He's damn good." And he had a third level. But the basic word was "good." He never appointed a bad person. He'd say, "He's no good," or "He's no damn good." So you were always in the position of not having to say, "Well, I appointed the best person and he's failed so what have I got now? The second-best, or the third-best?"

And Harry never appointed a blue-ribbon committee. I don't think there's been a committee appointed in the last four or five administrations that wasn't a blue-ribbon committee. I suggested once, when they did it, that I didn't think it was really a blue-ribbon, I didn't think it was even a red-ribbon, committee. I think you get a brown ribbon just for bringing your horse, don't you? And you kind of reduce the language so that it comes within the context of a reasonable kind of judgment.

A few more things like this ought to be observed. The final one comes from the poet William Stafford. In one of his poems he said, "If you purify the pond," he said, "the lilies die." What we've been through is a kind of purifying process as stated by Stafford, and as stated by the Duke [from Measure for Measure] in Shakespeare who says, "There is such a fever on goodness that the undoing of it will be the end thereof. There's scarce truth enough to make society secure, but security enough to make brotherhood accursed."

Not by popular demand exactly, but I have two poems that I will kind of juxtapose at the end of this. One has to do with politics. The other one is a little more optimistic, so I'll end with the optimistic one.

The Public Man

He walks even in daylight with his arms outstretched.
Fishlike, he shies at shadows,
his own following him, nose to the ground,
like a blind bloodhound.
Grey mists float through the cavities of his skull,
he feeds the sterile steer, and cows of no desire,
on the mast of bitter grapes.
He shades his eyes against fireflies;
and his own life, which once burned bright,
is now yellow tallow.
His words rise like water twice used from the cistern pumps,
and then go out, in a wavery line, like beagles in search of rabbits.
Like a gull crying with a tired voice, he looks back often into the fog.
Each night he holds his stone head between his hands
while his elbows sink into the tabletop.

Courage After Sixty

Now it is certain that there is no magic stone
there is no secret to be found.
One must go with the mind's winnowed learning,
no more than the child's handhold on a willow leaning over the lake
or on a sumac root at the edge of the bluff.
All ignorance is checked, all betrayals scratched.
The coat is hung on the peg, the cigar laid on beveled table's edge,
the cue chosen and chalked, the balls racked for the final break;
all cards have been drawn, all bets called,
the dice warm as blood in the palm shaken for the final cast;
the glove has been thrown on the ground, the last choice of weapons made,
a book for one poem, the poem for a line, a line for a word.
"Broken things are powerful," said Yeats,
but things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is the truest.

Eugene J. McCarthy is a teacher, poet, former U.S. congressman and senator from Minnesota, ran for President three times and has written at least 17 books.

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