Talking to Eugene McCarthy again after an interval of a couple of years, one is first of all impressed with the absence of any effect the momentous events of this year have had upon his personality and behavior. Most public men—and, for that matter, most private men as well—play roles which either they or others or events have assigned them. Their dreams or their ambitions or the functions they are called upon to perform compel them to make it appear that they are different from what they actually are. Look at Humphrey, Nixon, Reagan, Rockefeller, Wallace (the order is strictly alphabetical): they all play, in different mixtures, the roles of leader, savior, man of action. I know a public figure of great eminence who is famous for his humility, whom another public figure of equal eminence has called the proudest humble man in America!
What has always struck me in Eugene McCarthy’s personality and what struck me again the other day with renewed force is the complete absence of any visible contrast between the public role he plays and the man himself. There is no pretense, not even the intimation of an attempt to impress, and there is in consequence the impact of an extraordinary measure of poise, serenity, and inner strength. For only the man who is either not sure of himself or seeks rewards beyond his merits is compelled to conceal his true self and deck it out in borrowed robes. More particularly, those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of power and compete for the highest political prize must make it appear that what they are seeking is power not for its own sake but only as an instrument for the attainment of different and higher goals.
What the other candidates for the Presidential nomination are compelled to pretend is an obvious fact in McCarthy’s case. It would certainly be false to say that McCarthy has no sense of power. He would have liked the Vice-Presidential nomination in 1964, and he would like the Presidential nomination in 1968. But he wants the nomination this year not because he has dedicated his life to the pursuit of supreme power but because the events of this year have shown him that he can perform three functions for America no other candidate appears to be able to perform. He can restore a philosophy of government and of the American purpose which suits the genius of the American people. By doing this, he can move large masses of Americans and, more particularly, of the younger generation back into active participation in the democratic processes. Finally, he presents clear-cut alternatives to the policies of the present Administration as well as of his competitors, especially in the field of foreign policy.
Once he has achieved these goals he would, as he made clear to me, be willing to relinquish supreme power; that is, he might not seek reelection after one term. Immediately after the New Hampshire primary and before Robert Kennedy…
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