Saturday, October 09, 2004

Recalling Eugene McCarthy

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:47 AM |  

In Friday’s Pioneer Press, Glenda Holste plugs a worthwhile outing for us history buffs -- the traveling Smithsonian Exhibit "The American Presidency" on display at the Minnesota Historical Society. A reader at Fraters Libertas takes liberties with Holste’s column finding subliminal messaging in descriptions of some of the displays. For example (“subliminal message“ in blue added by the letter writer) --

"To see a cotton dress printed with blue McCarthy campaign emblems is to recall that the presidential election of 1968 challenged a sitting president in time of war. (Bush has completely screwed up Iraq. It's okay to kick the bum out.)"
I don’t know if Holste really intended the subliminal message the letter writer attributes to her. She would probably deny it. And Glenda Holste is an honorable woman.

Nonetheless, I too think of Eugene McCarthy as a man with the courage to stand up for a moral principle he strongly believed in. He took it on himself to do something no other Democrat was willing to do -- even Bobby Kennedy -- when he challenged Lyndon Johnson who at the time appeared unbeatable in the polls.

(A little bit, if you will, like Howard Dean stepping up on the Iraq War while John Kerry, anticipating the political equivalent of a Silver Star, waited in the “ship of state” ready to race out after the battle and shoot the wounded.)

But what’s really interesting about McCarthy’s challenge to Lyndon Johnson is that it would not have been possible under today’s campaign finance laws. McCarthy himself says --

"I couldn't have run for president if it hadn't had been for big money contributors."

George M. Kraw, in a 1999 California Law Journal-- pre McCain/Fiengold article -- writes,

"Adjusted for inflation, the 1968 McCarthy campaign raised more money from private donors than George W. Bush has to date. His effort was kick-started by a small group of wealthy financial angels who ignored conventional political wisdom that decreed McCarthy didn't have a prayer. The New Hampshire primary ended the Johnson presidency. McCarthy eventually lost the party nomination to Hubert Humphrey, but his candidacy helped hasten America's withdrawal from Vietnam. Today's $1,000 individual or $5,000 PAC federal election limits on contributions would have made his run impossible. "

For denizens of the blogosphere, here’s another interesting McCarthy observation from before the 2000 election.

“But the real problem,” McCarthy said, “goes way beyond individual power brokers or media moguls to a political-corporate-media complex that can control what people hear and think and feel about democracy, the popular culture and foreign affairs.”

"The networks are going to decide who's to be heard and who's not to be heard,” he said. “I don't know what to do about it."

Being a liberal without a government answer to a problem is kind of refreshing when the current Democrat nominee’s refrain of “I have a plan” is heard in response to questions from the most vital to the most trival aspects of our everyday lives. But, then, government didn’t need a plan. The market, the Internet, the blogosphere is providing the answer and causing the mainstream media fits.

So, when you think of Eugene McCarthy, it’s all well and good to remember him as a man who took on a sitting president in time of war. But also remember that he did so for principle, not partisanship. That on the principle of free speech he opposes campaign finance reform and domination of public discourse by a single medium. That he understands how true liberal principles can adapt to the issues of the day without compromising their integrity.

Conservatives need fewer liberal partisans and more liberal idealists like McCarthy. The former are merely annoying; the latter provide the legitimate challenges that keep conservative thinking fresh and vital.