Sunday, December 11, 2005

Remembering – and learning from – Senator Gene McCarthy

NPR’s “Weekend Edition” announced this morning this Senator Gene McCarthy had died yesterday at the age of 89. I was living in Minnesota and active politically when Senator McCarthy contested the New Hampshire Primary and, soon afterward, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection. 1968 was a tragic political year marked by the assassination of the candidate I supported, Robert Kennedy, by the Democratic Convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey and by the election of Richard Nixon. I spent election night in the suite of Minneapolis Mayor Art Naftalin at the Leamington Hotel where the democratic faithful gathered watching the returns. We did not learn the Humphrey had lost, when Nixon carried California by a slim margin, until the next morning.

Commentators are drawing parallels between 1968 and today. In both instances a President and his associates dissembled about the reasons for going to war, promised a quick victory and then failed to deliver. A major difference between then and now was the absence of a draft. A draft engaged college students in a way far different then their present level of engagement. Of course even the draft was not for everyone as the experiences of Presidents Clinton and Bush demonstrated.

Personally, however, the parallels between present circumstances and the latter years of President Nixon’s second term seem more compelling. Our President is increasingly isolated – he speaks only at military bases, before other carefully vetted audiences and at Republican fund raisers. Apparently, he is carefully screened from, or screens himself from, information that contradicts his world view. There are even parallels between the Valerie Palme affair and Watergate. In both cases the administration’s damage control strategy was cover up. Now, as in Watergate, the strategy appears to be unraveling.

Senator John McCain appears to be the McCarthyesque figure of our time. My gut reaction – and, apparently, that of many Americans – is that he is candid about his views and a man who can be trusted. He recently completed a book on integrity. I believe he takes integrity seriously. As in the early 1970s integrity appears to be scarce commodity in Washington. Even our Secretary of State, whose integrity I once respected, parses her words when questioned about whether the US does or does not sanction torture.

Democracy functions best when political leaders do not need to put words like “truth,” “torture” and “integrity” in quotation marks. We need more political leaders like Senators McCarthy and McCain. We need to be engaged, politically, and we need to be vigilant.

These are troubling times.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

but we have that with Joe Liberman right?

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Professor Dave said...

Sad that we do not elect true war hero's like Mr. McCain, indeed. Troubled times.

1:15 PM  

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