LUNCH WITH GENE
OVER THE PAST QUARTER CENTURY or
so, Mark Plotkin and I would have occasional lunches with Eugene
McCarthy. Plotkin, now a political commentator for Washington
radio station WTOP, had been McCarthy's campaign manager when
he ran as an independent for president in 1976. The lunches were
at such places as Duke Zeibert's - a haven for the untight powerful
- and later at the Review conference room at La Tomate Restaurant
- AKA the table just southwest of the bar. Between lunches, Gene
McCarthy would write poetry, books of essays, columns (which
I happily published in this journal), drink coffee at the H&J
Grocery in Sperryville, Virginia, and, when the mood struck him,
run for president. During or after lunch I would invariably find
myself scribbling a few words on a napkin or in my butt pilot,
the small note pad I keep in my back pocket. Here are some the
things these notes recall. . .
DURING THE 1976
while McCarthy and Plotkin were in Florida, Bill Veeck announced
that he was reactivating Minnie Minoso for eight at-bats so he
could claim to have played over four decades. Veeck was always
coming up with ideas. Some weren't so great, like putting his
players in short pants, but some became traditions like having
the announcer sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during
the seventh-inning stretch. When Chicagoan Plotkin read the Minoso
story he quickly came up with another idea for Veeck: have him
reactivate former Soo Leaguer Eugene McCarthy. Gene was excited
and Plotkin made the call. Veeck had just one question: "Can
he hit?" Plotkin assured him that McCarthy was a strong
hitter. There was a long pause and then the reply, "Nah.
. . Daley would kill me."
ONCE WE WERE having lunch at Duke's
when Rob Reiner came into the room. McCarthy rose to greet him
and the much shorter Reiner, clearly delighted to see him, rushed
forward and then hesitated, asking "Do you do hugs?"
ON ANOTHER OCCASION former Indiana Senator
Vance Hartke sat down with us. As he approached, Plotkin said,
"Here comes one half of Bayh and Bought." Hartke had
been one of the first senators to come out against the Vietnam
war, but after leaving the Senate he lowered his sights somewhat,
lobbying for riverboat gambling and getting caught at the age
of 77 violating state election laws. He was convicted and put
on probation. Hartke told us of visiting Governor Roger Branigan
one morning. The governor was on his second whiskey and said
to Hartke, "You know, I never wanted to be governor, I just
wanted to be elected governor."
was the one from the west who, when things got real bad, would
say, 'It's antelope time. Nothin' to do but paint a white stripe
down the back of your pants and run with the antelopes."
LONG BEFORE JERRY
there was the colorful Catholic television character, Bishop
Fulton Sheen, who not only spread the gospel but gave the future
star of 'West Wing' his stage name. Sheen stayed in character
off the set. McCarthy recalled sitting with him in a restaurant
as a waitress took the orders. When she came to the customer
in the fancy robes, she said, "And what do you want, cock
MINNESOTA, Gene explained, was a place
where people committed their sins in English, confessed in German
and were absolved in Latin.
I ONCE MENTIONED
to Gene and received in return the unpremeditated bias of populist
and Nordic Minnesota towards its German neighbor: "Oh they're
just a bunch of socialists over there."
MAINE ONCE. How'd
you like it, I asked. "Well, it seems that all the women
look like men and I got real interested in these places called
redemption centers until I found they were just for old soda
Senate was like a herd of cattle while the House acted more like
hogs. The former would willing follow one steer with a sense
of direction but the latter needed to be stampeded.
McCarthy, always asked God to care for the country while he was
asleep. Gene said this was one reason he liked nighttime the
best although he worried about those on the west coast because
of the time differential.
GENE TOOK TENNIS
Allie Ritzenberg at St. Alban's School in the shadow of the National
Cathedral. Many of Washington's most prominent went there to
release whatever aggressions were left over from their day job.
Ritzenberg, when he wasn't winning titles himself, coached people
like Jackie Kennedy, Katherine Graham and Robert McNamara. McCarthy
viewed McNamara as a coward for showing up on the courts early
in the morning when no one was around to see how badly he played.
Gene told Ritzenberg that he was responsible for the Vietnam
War because he kept hitting to McNamara's strength thereby boosting
his ego. Then McNamara would go to the Pentagon and escalate
the real battle.
asked McCarthy for help freeing Oklahoma from the onerous provisions
of the pending highway beautification act. Gene agreed and gave
a moving speech in which he pointed out that billboards actually
improved the scenery of Oklahoma.
WHEN THE VALERIE
came up I asked Gene whether there was an easy way to tell who
was the CIA operative in an American embassy. Just look for the
staffer who shows the least respect towards the ambassador, he
SOMEONE asked what Gene would do
if he were to become pope. He replied that he would cut the Ten
Commandments down to four and reorder them.
GENE had other novel solutions.
He favored prayer in school but only on court-ordered buses.
He also suggested that pregnant women be allowed to drive down
the HOV-2 lane, an argument that would later end up in court.
HE LIKE PRINCIPLES
YOU COULD FOLLOW:
"An old Congressman - I think it was Brad Spencer - 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
'Vote against all
'Vote against all
They hadn't started
to reinvent government then but he would have said, 'Vote against
And, he said, 'Vote
against all Republicans.' That was the last word and rather a
good bit of advice."
GENE AND I both owned property in Rappahannock
County, Virginia, about two hours away. If DC had the population
density of Rappahannock, it would have only 2,000 people living
in it. I bought the place in the early 1970s from G. Brown Miller,
who once told me, "You know, partner, your friend Erbin
is a mighty fine fellow." I agreed. "He gave me one
of them marijuwana cigarettes the other day." "How'd
you like it, Brown?" I asked. "Well, it seems like
to me, for a man who's lived on moonshine all your life, it don't
I once went entered
the H&J Grocery store and found a group of men drinking coffee,
including a fully uniformed and armed game warden holding his
coffee in one hand and a copy of Foreign Affairs in the other.
It was explained to me that Gene McCarthy had been in earlier.
DESPITE ALL HIS
presidential races, his defeat in the 1982 Minnesota senatorial
race sometimes appeared to bother him most. And Rappahannock
County was partly to blame. It seemed his opponent had depicted
McCarthy as a stranger who lived amongst the Virginia gentry
and the horsey set. Gene tried to explain the difference between,
say, truly horsey Middleburg, Virginia, and Rappahannock - such
as the roughness of the latter's terrain and its groundhog holes.
Challenged to explain who did live there, "I acknowledged
that there were one or two gentlemen in the county and another
two or three marginal ones, whose names I refused to give out,
and went on to explain that the men of my acquaintance in the
county were country lawyers, well diggers, preachers, horse trainers
and traders, orchard men, cattle breeders and horse breeders,
wood cutters, timber men, a game warden, at least three country
store owners, an auctioneer, two filling station operators, the
keeper of the hounds, a real estate man who encouraged people
to eat rutabagas, a county supervisor, one or two persons suspected
of being moonshiners and bootleggers, poachers, a coon hound
trainer and hunter, and one suspected of keeping fighting chickens,
and a few scattered United Airlines pilots."
GENE ARGUED THAT
autographed inscriptions were more valuable as they were bought
by people who actually wanted to read the book and not just to
please a friend.
ON HIS 80TH BIRTHDAY,
recalled Robert McNamara appearing before a Senate committee:
||| He testified
one day, and [Senator] Wayne Morse asked him, "How many
tanks are there in Latin America?" And McNamara 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." |||
FINALLY IT WAS
go to a retirement home. As Gene had said when he turned 80,
he was "beyond the reach of the scriptures" with their
lifespan of three score and ten. But he didn't think all that
much of his new form of exile. For one thing, there had to be
at least three people at each table in the dining hall: "You
need one to eat, one to talk, and one to hear." And he learned
early not to sit at the same table with Victor Reuther who had
developed an endless capacity for describing his near death in
an attempted murder while a labor leader. Gene's view of retirement:
"I feel like I'm on a cruise ship on the River Styx."
And: "The line between assisted living and assisted dying
is very thin."
HERE'S ONE OF
he recited on his 80th birthday
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
Like a gull crying with a tired voice, he looks back often into
Each night he holds
his stone head between his hands
while his elbows sink into the tabletop. - EM
THE LAST TIME I saw Gene he was observing
his 89th birthday in his apartment with the help of a lobster
sent over by the Palm Restaurant. Gene was not able to move or
talk much and when he did speak it was almost inaudible. But
I listened anyway, fascinated that, even at this sad final stage,
the words - though barely comprehensible - still seemed poetic.
It was as though he was working on his last verse.
BUT HE HAD already written it:
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
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
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
a book for one poem, the poem for a line, a line for a word.
are powerful," said Yeats,
but things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is the truest.
IN A PEW
SAM SMITH -
The memorial service for Gene McCarthy ran a bit long, considering
it was a tribute to a man who had once suggested reducing the
number of commandments from ten to four. And it was disturbing
to see Bill Clinton shamelessly delivering a tribute to a man
of integrity, especially one who had once suggested, as a reform,
that "we fire all the Rhodes and Oxford scholars and everyone
from Arkansas." But then there was also Peter Yarrow singing
and the moving memorials and the brass section of the National
Symphony and, most of all, the guy sitting next to me in the
National Cathedral pew.
With pleasant earnestness he had
turned to me before the service and asked, "Tell me, what
did he do? He ran for president, didn't he? And was he a senator?"
I was stunned, wondering what had
led him to enter the cathedral in the first place, but straight
forwardly described McCarthy's experience in 1968.
The man was interested and noted,
"I wasn't here then but I just liked the way he stood up
for the truth."
A light clicked. "You were
in Vietnam," I said.
"Right. It really screwed you
up. Every day you thought you were going to die. I'm still screwed
During the service, my neighbor
made copious notes and took photos with his camera.
At the end of the service, I shook
hands and said I had been glad to meet him, adding, "Was
He smiled. "It was unforgettable.
I feel alive again."
FOR EUGENE MCCARTHY
Americans for Democratic Action National Board
December 15, 1992
[In 1992, Gene McCarthy
asked me, as a vice president of Americans for Democratic Action,
to put his name into nomination for the organization's endorsement
as the Democratic candidate for president. I knew ADA was about
to endorse Bill Clinton but I agreed to Gene's request. Here
is my speech]
I first became involved
in the McCarthy campaign out of friendship. Gene McCarthy called
me and asked for my help. I told him I had already contributed
to [Tom] Harkin. He said that was all right to help those young
fellows. It's hard to argue with an attitude like that.
My initial task was to
figure out why the hell he was running again.
I soon discovered that
what appeared quixotic only had that aura because of the cynical,
perverse, corrupt, trivial and destructive politics of our times.
The oddity was not that Gene McCarthy was running but that we
thought it odd.
And what precisely did
we think was odd?
That he refuses to give
up a good fight?
That he is probably the
most intelligent candidate?
The one with the longest
service to the progressive cause?
The one with the most
experience, both foreign and domestic?
The one of most unflinching
Or that he believes, in
the manner of Plutarch, that politics is a lifetime avocation
and not an occasional experience of convenience?
No, what was really odd
was that these qualities appear to carry so little weight in
our political considerations.
In 1948, Gene McCarthy
supported national health insurance.
In 1954, he was the only
member of Congress willing to debate publicly with Joseph McCarthy.
In 1968, he opposed the
In 1975, he went to court
against our current crazy and corrupt elections system.
So the basic question
is: do you want to adopt McCarthy's policies now or -- as we
have in the past -- wait another 20 or 25 years?
Is Gene McCarthy serious?
No candidate is more serious. But unlike most candidates these
days, McCarthy is serious about his politics. Most candidates
are only serious about getting themselves elected. Most -- including
some who will be extolled this morning -- really only hope to
be the misty mirror of our own longings. They are not truly salesmen
at all, but consumers -- consumers of our own gullibility.
Much of what you hear
from politicians is not policy and ideas, but merely speeches.
The other night, at the Irish Times pub, Maurice Rosenblatt explained
to me how speeches in Washington are written: first you write
the headline, then you write the news release, then you write
the speech, then you do the research.
It has been said that
Washington is a place where perceptions vie with scenarios to
supplant reality. Whether that happens is ultimately, however,
not Tom Brokaw's or George Will's choice, but ours.
Each of us has the choice
to surrender to the tyranny of perceptions or, as Dylan Thomas
put it, rage, rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Part
of that choice is before you this morning. I urge you to consider
your remaining potential to choose as a gift, a sacred part of
what makes you human.
To those who would chide
me for the impracticality of nominating the senior statesman
of liberalism, I advise you to consider what the great British
liberal, G.K. Chesterton, once said: all good politics starts
with the ideal.
You work backwards from
there. So be pragmatic if you must. Accede to puerile perceptions
if there is no other choice. But not -- dear friends -- on the
first ballot. On the first ballot, just vote right.
Being in politics is like
being a football coach; you have to be smart enough to understand
the game and dumb enough to think it's important.
The only thing that saves us
from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy
is the greatest threat to liberty.
Postmodern politicians . . .
have not known community, many of them. . . . They are isolated.
. . . Many are like the child in the airport, smiling too readily,
too soon or too long, bearing a name tag with both a return and
a forwarding address.