Eugene McCarthy
Eugene McCarthy; drawing by David Levine

The following article was written before Johnson announced he would not run again; I think, by and large, it still holds. These appended remarks are being written a few hours after his announcement.

Is Johnson really out of it? Probably; he seemed entirely sincere; but nothing lends itself more easily to manipulation than a sincere decision. Much, however, depends on Hanoi. Suppose there is a favorable response to the bombing pause; and then a cease fire and negotiations; and even, although unlikely, some sort of agreement before November. Johnson could then say that by remaining “above politics” he, and not Kennedy or McCarthy, had reunified the country. Should he not then be invited to continue his fatherly benefactions?

Suppose, on the other hand, that for one reason or another Hanoi refuses to enter negotiations and a situation both political and militarily untenable is created in Vietnam. There might well follow a rise in pro-war sentiment in the US, based on the feeling that an effort to win an honorable peace had been spurned. How Johnson could exploit this against Kennedy and McCarthy need hardly be elaborated.

An improbable scenario? Yes, but not quite to be discounted.

There may well be further candidacies. Humphrey may enter the Democratic race, though after all that has happened these last few weeks it seems unlikely he could win much favor either in the primaries or with the party professionals. As it comes to seem more and more likely that the Democratic candidate will be a dove, the Republican professionals may decide to dump Nixon and turn to someone like Rockefeller on the grounds that they need a man who could meet Kennedy or McCarthy on his own ground. Meanwhile, now that the argument that we must avoid dividing the anti-Johnson forces has been considerably weakened, there is still more reason to stick with McCarthy.

For all its creakiness and cumbersomeness, the democratic process seems to have come through pretty damned well. Surely a major reason for Johnson’s decision was a belated but strong response to growing public pressure and disenchantment. The complaints one heard around American campuses that dissidents aren’t listened to, and have no choice but “alienation” or exile or urban guerrilla tactics, seem now to be utterly wrong or, at the very least, wildly premature.

If the Democratic candidate is both a dove and a liberal, the intellectuals will have a special opportunity. A part from the task of fundamental social criticism, which is necessary at all times, we ought to begin working up specific programs for the reconstruction of American society. If we don’t indulge ourselves in self-pity and apocalyptic melodrama, if we offer proposals that can provide the basis for both legislation and popular pressure, then we will be listened to. Much is wrong with this country, gravely wrong; but it is alive.

As to the astonishing gesture of Lyndon Johnson one can twist some lines from Macbeth: “Nothing in his presidency/Became him like the leaving of it.”

SUDDENLY POLITICAL LIFE has become interesting. The idea of choice is in the air: people find it exhilarating. How, one wonders, did we come in so short a time to so sharp a change? What does it mean, as promise or threat, for American society? In this moment of rapid flux it would be foolish to offer more than intuitions and guesses; here, for what they are worth, are mine.

WH(T CAN ONE MAN DO? It now seems just barely possible that one man, by no means the most influential or powerful, has changed the course of our political life. This is the kind of assertion that intellectuals regard with suspicion, and rightly so. They prefer to deal with “historical trends” and “forces”; they dislike a politics of personality even if, being human, they sometimes succumb to it. Yet in so far as the political situation has become transformed within the parties, on the campus, and in the nation as a whole, I think the immediate cause was Eugene McCarthy’s readiness to take risks.

Let us remember our feelings of a few weeks ago: a sense of gloom, of not knowing where to turn or what to do. It seemed almost certain that we faced a national election in which the opponents would be Johnson and Nixon—a prospect roughly equivalent to having to decide between plunging into a credibility gap and a credibility chasm. By the end of the summer we may again be faced with a choice between two candidates who inspire a profound sense of moral discomfort even among many of their own supporters; but at least now, in this moment of primaries, we seem to have an opportunity to express through the electoral process our opposition to the Vietnam war and its domestic consequences. That is no small matter.


I do not know Mr. McCarthy, and cannot even guess at his psychology. What drove him to challenge Johnson at a time when every “expert” was declaring this gesture to be suicidal and utopian? Until recently he had hardly captured one’s imagination. His voting record was by no means beyond criticism; he did not seem very militant in his liberalism; he was reputed to be rather lackadaisical in the Senate. Yet something did drive him. It could not have been mere ambition or opportunism, since these motives would have counseled silence and caution, as another, more famous Senator concluded.

No, something more significant seemed to prod McCarthy into staking career, reputation, and self on a seemingly hopeless and certainly lonely action. Is it too much to suppose—despite our reluctance, our notorious embarrassment at crediting such a possibility—that what drove McCarthy was a sense of principle, a memory of the American tradition of “service,” a conviction that he had to enter the campaign regardless of what it might do to his career?

I remember at the very outset of his campaign hearing from friends who were working with him. Idealists and intellectuals, they were suddenly doing their damnedest to don a masquerade of political realism, and were bemoaning McCarthy’s refusal to rant at audiences, his insistence on speaking quietly and rationally. “Just as if he were in a classroom,” they said—they who had spent most of their lives in classrooms, presumably with the conviction that it was not a shameful place to be. But McCarthy went his own way. With results, as we know, that were remarkable. Single-handed, he created the possibility of choice, if not yet the reality. An act of rectitude transformed our politics.

I HEAR an objection. What made McCarthy’s response possible, it may be said, was the earlier presence of sustained and energetic protest. Probably so. Yet even with this protest, there was nothing “inevitable” in the responses of McCarthy or Kennedy or anyone else. Each public man had to make a decision, and only one, it should be remembered, chose to act in a way that would give the dissident minority of this country a chance to express itself through the political system.

The point can be reinforced through a counter-assumption. Suppose McCarthy had won 18 instead of 40 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote—what would have happened? Kennedy would have sat on his hands, confirmed in the wisdom of caution and waiting; McCarthy would have gone ahead to campaign in Wisconsin. It makes a difference.

It makes a difference especially because of the nature of the American political system, which, at least in foreign policy, puts enormous power in the hands of the President. For good or bad—I suppose for both—this means that in the national elections we must consider not only political programs, supporting social forces, and practical expediencies; we must also take into account the kind of man to whom so fearful an option, so great an authority, will be given.

That, I think, is the reason why the students raced to McCarthy’s support and the reason why they now refuse to abandon him. They tend to express themselves in personal and emotional terms: loyalty, gratitude, Mr. Clean—not the least estimable of responses. But what they are saying also has political implications. They are saying that McCarthy showed himself a man ready to risk humiliation in behalf of principle. The time may come, they imply, when it will be necessary to turn to another candidate—but not in a hurry. I think they are right.

THE VALUE OF AMATEURISM: For some years McCarthy had been a fairly conventional politician. Running for reelection to the Senate in Minnesota, he would probably remain that. But once he began his campaign for the presidential nomination, he understood, either explicitly or intuitively, that whatever success he might gain would have to come largely by abandoning the methods and styles of professional politics. In fact, he seems to sense the value of amateurism a good deal more keenly than do many of the devoted amateurs working for him.

Regardless of whether he meant his entry as a mere gesture of protest or as having some hope of affecting Democratic politics, McCarthy seemed to sense that his only chance lay in keeping everything loose and easy, as a kind of lowkeyed crusade. Why? Because at a time when almost every political figure in the country was indulging in cant or sulking in withdrawal, McCarthy’s only hope would be to talk quietly, beneath the roar of official noise. Because in the usual hoopla of American politics he could not hope, and did not even deserve, to compete. Because the kind of work he needed from his volunteers could be had only in an atmosphere of fraternal amateurism.


The point of McCarthy’s venture was to show that the professional politicians and analysts, blinded by their self-serving narrowness, could be seriously wrong in their estimate of popular sentiment. The point was to show that large numbers of people would listen to a man who talked sensibly, even if they might not agree with him. Cynics on one side look upon the voters as a mass of slobs to be seduced with calls to national unity and patriotism; cynics on the other side look upon the voters as mere brainwashed automata, victims of the Cold War. Both could be wrong.

Amateurism is intrinsic to a politics of dissidence, and without recurrent dissidence this country cannot survive. There have been reports in the press that an effort is being made to “professionalize” the McCarthy organization; it will be fascinating to see whether McCarthy’s instincts, thus far so finely attuned to the kind of politics he has undertaken, will tell him when to check this effort.

FACE-LIFTING AMONG THE STUDENTS: Which, or which kind of, students went to New Hampshire and Wisconsin? My impression is that some of them were students who had come under one or another kind of New Left influence but few were hard-line or ideological New Leftists.

From the outset the New Left, in so far as it forms a coherent political tendency, took a contemptuous stand toward McCarthy. It is not hard to see why; people oriented toward Black Power, Régis Debray, urban guerrillas, and “confrontation” are likely to find electoral politics irrelevant or uninteresting. The Peace and Freedom Party of California announced it would not support McCarthy because he refused to say the war was “illegal”—a concern with legal niceties that has not always marked the positions of this group. Andrew Kopkind in the current Ramparts offers the notable judgment that “McCarthy’s failure, both personally and politically, is a perfect metaphor for the failure of liberalism in the American ’60s. Liberalism is where people are not.”

The more ideological among the New Left students have either been contemptuous of electoral politics in general or of McCarthy as bourgeois politician in particular. But given the current political moods of the campus, it seems likely that many of the students who went to New Hampshire and Wisconsin have also been influenced by that loose cluster of ideas and sentiments we associate with the New Left.

What strikes me as so interesting here is that in going to work for McCarthy these students were tacitly denying at least some of the notions to which they had recently been drawn. Right now an influential theorist in student radical circles is Herbert Marcuse. It is his view that we live in a mass society which, by providing bread, circuses, and technology, has tamed the forces of opposition; that there is no significant possibility of breaking out of a social domination sustained by material plenty but yielding no spiritual gratifications; that efforts at reform and dissidence usually tend to be mere superficial phenomena; and that many of the traditional values of liberalism—such as tolerance, free speech, electoral activity—serve mainly to ease people into an adjustment to the status quo.

Revolution thus being declared all but impossible, and reform all but ineffectual, Marcuse’s doctrines can be used to justify one or another kind of elitism. His doctrines can appeal to those who, as in West Berlin, discard traditional versions of Leninist and/or Social Democratic politics, and instead launch a series of adventures or “raids,” perhaps to usurp, perhaps to unsettle established power, but clearly in contempt of democratic processes. Or his doctrines can appeal to those who, as in many American campuses, declare themselves exempt from the delusions of the mob, yet feel themselves doomed to impotence. Both of these variants or consequences provide, I think, a “revolutionary” rationale for a politics that signifies an all-too-human withdrawal. Still, whatever one’s judgment, there is no denying that ideas of this sort have caught on among dissident students for the reason that they reflect the sense of helplessness many people have in fact felt, a sense of being trapped in a ghastly war and its domestic consequences.

Yet it is notable that once an opportunity arose for active engagement in conventional politics, thousands of students rushed to seize it. They were right to. They were also right, despite their suspicion of expediency, to submit with good humor to the rule that those with long hair had to get it cut if they were to do political canvassing. In practice they quickly understood a point which in theory they had sometimes resisted: that it would be hard enough to reach middle-class and conservative voters with the word on Vietnam without having also to buck their prejudices about personal appearance. They came to understand that in behalf of an urgent social purpose it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice a personal style. Not for the first time experience proved richer than theory.

IT IS IMPORTANT that the McCarthy campaign continue as long as possible; as an independent effort at releasing the sentiments of the left-liberal community, as a contribution to breaking Johnson’s hold within the Democratic Party, and, if necessary, as the strongest possible bargaining power with the Kennedy people. I think it would be disgraceful, for example, if the intellectuals who came out in support of McCarthy when he seemed our only hope were now to scurry away, either in quiet or with noise. Both as an obligation of honor and as a tactic of politics, it is important to keep going. Besides, who knows where it may yet lead?

The most serious problem concerning the thousands of McCarthy volunteers will arise if and when it is necessary to give up an independent campaign. The elation and hope which now prevail could easily turn into despair and bitterness. The readiness to work within the electoral system could easily turn into “disillusionment,” as, in a way, those students who went down to work for civil rights in Mississippi were replaced by those who yielded to the chants of “Black Power.” This would be a tragedy.

Those of us who hope for a renewed politics of dissidence, call it a radicalized liberalism or a liberal radicalism, have every reason to be happy about the kind and magnitude of response the McCarthy campaign has won, both among students and other people. These volunteers are not enough; they do not represent a sufficiently large or powerful segment of the population; but they have enormous symptomatic value. In Minnesota, I’m told, some of them poured into Democratic clubs and, in an entirely legitimate fashion, turned the clubs toward McCarthy. What needs somehow to be communicated is the idea that, win or lose in the primaries and at the convention, such political action should be regarded neither as a one-shot gamble nor a last desperate gesture but as the beginnings of a sustained politics which could realign the party system in the United States. Toward this end it is desirable to hold together, in some sort of loose association, all those who have found in the McCarthy campaign a way of expressing their authentic feelings and values.

But how can this be done? I wish I knew. Perhaps someone else can take it from here.

This Issue

April 25, 1968