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Senator Eugene McCarthy: A Kirkian Anecdote

Russell Kirk, the great St Andrean and American man of letters, relates this anecdote in his article “Will American Caesars Arise?” (Modern Age, Summer 1989):

The most interestingly complex of all recent aspirants to the presidency, [Senator Eugene] McCarthy obdurately called himself a liberal during years when that appellation was sinking swiftly in popular favour – although he abjured all forms of liberalism earlier than Franklin Roosevelt’s. (During the past few years, as he now remarks, he has employed the word ‘‘liberal’’ as an adjective merely.) In his political theories, actually, McCarthy has been a conservative: He declared long ago that Edmund Burke was his political mentor, and no one has more warmly praised Tocqueville. He has read seriously and written intelligently. In the White House – per impossibile – he might have turned the most imaginatively conservative of Presidents.

Or perhaps not. Once upon a time I had an assistant who was a graphoanalyst, an expert on handwriting. Having examined a specimen of Senator McCarthy’s handwriting, my assistant pronounced him rebellious, a hard master, and desirous of power. A touch of Caesar even in Caesar’s adversary? However that may be, McCarthy’s only considerable assertion of power was his unseating of President Johnson by running a good second in the New Hampshire primary of 1968.

A congenital no-sayer, Eugene McCarthy never ran with the hounds. He was candid and witty always. He and I first met as debaters before a large audience, in Boston. After this exchange, sponsored by the Paulist Fathers, a reception was held for us. Up to Senator McCarthy came a zealous young Paulist, inquiring, “Senator McCarthy, don’t you think that Jack Kennedy is the finest president this nation ever has had?” (This occurred during the first year of the Kennedy administration.)

“No,” said McCarthy, unsmiling.

Although taken aback, the Paulist returned to the charge: “But surely you agree, Senator, that President Kennedy has given this nation a new hope, a new vigor, a sense of moving forward toward great things?”

“No,” said Eugene McCarthy.

The Paulist persisted: “But of course you’ll agree with me when I say, Senator, that the Kennedy family have brought to our life a culture, a refinement, a meaningfulness, that we have not known before.”

“No,” said Eugene McCarthy.

“But – but Senator McCarthy, surely Jack Kennedy is a very nice man personally?”

Eugene McCarthy turned his back upon the Paulist and slowly walked away. He knew how to say no, he was not ensnared by cliché and slogan, and he had a poet’s attachment to truth.

This post was published on Monday, June 20th, 2011 9:00 pm. It has been categorised under Errant Thoughts History Politics and been tagged under , .
Comments
  1. B T Van Nostrand
    20 June 2011
    10:59 pm

    Superb (and I mean both McCarthy and Kirk).
    There are no people in public discourse like this any longer – and won’t be until we as a society have fallen even further, and then risen anew.

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