December 12, 2005,
EDITOR'S NOTE: Former Senator Eugene McCarthy died this weekend at age 89. Reporting on the 1968 presidential campaign, James Jackson Kilpatrick wrote on McCarthy in the April 9, 1968, issue of National Review. Kilpatrick's piece is reprinted here.
Eugene McCarthy looked relieved. For the first time, he smiled; he does not smile often, one surmises, except inside. This smile was nothing to compare with Ike's grin or Romney's Pepsodent ramparts; it was a modest smile, the smile of a man reading Thurber in bed by himself; but it was not a politician's smile. The Senator, one observes, is a most impolitic politician.
This became evident as the evening worse along. McCarthy went from the press conference to a room across the hall where 300 guests had gathered for a reception at $50 a head. If any other presidential candidate had been making such an entrance, he would have mad an entrance. There would have been a band, a greeting committee, a sense of the Very Important Personage arriving. He arrived as inconspicuously as a rowboat docking in a millpond. The hotel's loudspeakers were delivering rock'n'roll music at full volume. The Senator's first words were: "Could someone turn that noise off?"
Once the noise subsided, and the guests discovered their presidential candidate was in their midst, the reception went quite well. McCarthy seemed at ease. Once he visibly winced when a tweedy arm was throw across his back, but generally he was on his best behavior. Most of the women were 34 and all the men were a lightly graying 45. A covey of quail in mod stockings, green and white, added a Briarcliff touch. Even at the shrimp bar, the Senator could not escape the war in Vietnam. A bosomy woman in green chiffon pressed him close. "Oh, Senator," she breathed, "let's get out of there now." The Senator gave her his Rushmore look, and disengaged his arm.
At seven o'clock, Messrs. Rauh, Kennan, Ireland, Hewlett, assorted committee members, and 1,300 paying guests filed into the banquet hall for the fund-raising dinner. The head table stretched for thirty yards. Above the table, fastened to a great gold curtain, a banner unrolled in red and white: "EUGENE MCCARTHY FOR PRESIDENT." A mammoth portrait of the candidate, bunting bedecked, beamed upon the throng. And where was the candidate himself? He was upstairs, if the truth must be told, with his coat off and his vest unbuttoned, sipping Jack Daniels and eating a congenial steak dinner with the two Washington reporters….
McCarthy descended to the ballroom at 8:20. It was precisely as before. A different candidate would have made an entrance through the throng itself, but not McCarthy. The next President of the United States, as alas, he was never introduced, arrived at his largest campaign dinner unannounced. He surfed to the speakers' table on a wave of nice applause, and sat down at once between crew-cut professor, white-carnationed, and a pneumatic brunette, pink-badged, gold-earringed, who came from New Brunswick. Dessert was being served.
At 8:57 Greg Hewlett opened proceedings with his sad-happy talk. The candidate sat, hand over mouth, apparently thinking of something else entirely.
At 9:16 Joe Rauh took the lectern, his lumberjack face aglow with a fundraiser's zeal. He asked for $40,000 "to walk with Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire," and the checks came rolling up. Then George Kennan came on, big and leather-crowned and just a tremor in his hands, to make the introduction speech that would steal all the headlines in the morning New York Times a coruscating denunciation of the war. At 9:48.30, he launched into a concluding man-who paragraph. Wearily, rubbing his face, the man-who arose.
Now, if Mark Twain were around to report these affairs, he surely would remark McCarthy's disdain for the rules of such occasions. The rules require that a presidential candidate, on being introduced, shall give forth with a smile exhibiting not fewer than 22 teeth, including the eight bicuspids. McCarthy limited his display to twelve, Arriving at the microphone, a candidate is expected fully to elevate at least one arm, and preferably both; the Senator did not response in kind. The circumstances dictated a pair of jokes as openers, one at the expense of Joe Rauh, to be followed by a tribute to the beautiful ladies of New Jersey. The Senator ignored this duty altogether.
The statutes make it clear that a candidate may not appeal to the intelligence of the audience before him. He may properly appeal to patriotism, to partisanship, or to pugilistic instincts; he may dwell upon the necessity of preserving the Republic from the depredations of the Administration in power. Other appeals should be reserved for smaller occasions. A candidate is expected to speak not less than 45 minutes and to gesture not fewer than 128 times. Poetry must be limited strictly—two passages from Shakespeare and one from Edgar A. Guest; no other authors are allowed. If a prepared text has been distributed to the press, at least a substantial part of the text should actually be delivered.
McCarthy paid no heed to these rules. "I have a limited measure of courage," he began. Those were his very words. He spoke for barely 23 minutes, and he made no gestures at all. He launched into a high-level discussion of Vietnam and went on to speak movingly of the Negro as a "colonial" in America. He had distributed a text to the press, but he never came within four and one-half miles of that text. He alluded to the poetry of Dylan Thomas and actually quoted from Robert Lowell. He summoned George Orwell to his side; he invoked Toynbee on the history of Rome. The 1,300 guests interrupted twelve times with applause; mostly they sat entranced. When he concluded, they gave him a 1:40-minute standing ovation. It was a good deal short of Barry playing the Cow Palace, but it wasn't bad.
Nor was this the end of the heresy. The rules of fund-raising dinners require absolutely that upon completion of the speeches, the candidate proceed at once to conferences with his local managers.
The gentleman from Minnesota, never having heard of the protocol for presidential candidates, ducked out of the throng as if the devil were at his heels. He took the first elevator to his ninth-floor suite, and retired to his room. The two Washington reporters tagged along. The Senator once again got out of his coat, unbuttoned his vest, surveyed the Jack Daniels, and put his feet on a coffee table. Was he talking high politics till midnight. No, indeed. He was talking mainly of Yeats and Lowell and of Theodore Roethke and Vernon Watkins. And because the reporters lightly pressed him, he talked of the path that had led him to Newark that night.