Looking Back at 1968

 

I was sorting through old papers in my office a few weeks ago. Here you go; take a look.

 

If a clean desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, does it then hold that a cluttered desk is the sign of a clean mind?

 

I know; it’s a mess.  But forget that part.  This is not a post on clutter and cleanliness.

See that manila envelope peeking out from beneath the edges of my laptop?

Here it is up close:

 

 

It has been 50 years since I received that package while an undergrad. In it was this note from the office of then candidate for president, Eugene McCarthy:

 

 

They had mailed me a few of Senator McCarthy’s position papers and speeches:

 

 

Yes. I had asked for them.

Senator Eugene J. McCarthy (Democrat from Minnesota, aka D-MN) was running against a sitting president of his own party, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), in the desire to end the war in Vietnam.

With thanks to WashingtonArt.com for the image of Senator Eugene McCarthy.

McCarthy was not a particularly charismatic politician; some called him aloof.  He in fact fancied himself an outsider, an intellectual, and some say, preferred a good fight rather than just going along. Perhaps that’s why he so appealed to me.

Born March 29, 1916, Eugene McCarthy has been called “one of those uncommon men who puts his courage in the service of his country, and whose eloquence and energy are at the side of what is right and good.”

You know who said that? LBJ, after leaving office.

McCarthy entered politics the year I was born, trained for a short time for the priesthood, and was an economics professor when he first ran for the House of Representatives. He served in the House for ten years and was elected to the Senate in 1959, entering the race for president only after Robert Kennedy repeatedly refused to run.

An interesting aside (for me, anyway):  One of McCarthy’s first forays into “battle” came in the early 1950s when, as a junior Congressman, he took on another McCarthy at the height of his political power: Senator Joseph McCarthy (no relation) of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC.

A man of enormous integrity, intelligence, and stamina, Eugene McCarthy, like Adlai Stevenson before him and Senator Paul Simon after, discovered intellectuals don’t fare well with the American electorate. What is it about our electorate that the voters need charisma, charm, entertainment?  I find that disheartening.

But, I digress from what I wanted to say about McCarthy’s positions 50 years ago.

Let’s get back to those position papers I still have after all this time.

I’ve pulled five statements of his that speak to the urban riots that were a staple of nightly news during the summer of ’67.  See if you have the same reaction I did.

  1. The destruction and chaos of riot-torn cities are a shock to those who looked away from the scandal of poverty in the land of affluence, from frustration in a land of achievement, from despair in a land of promise and hope.
  2. Most of the persons involved in the riots are Negroes who suffer not only the degradation of institutionalized poverty but also the humiliation and frustration of discrimination and segregation. It is mistake, however, to regard the riots as racial disorders and to ignore the bitter truth that many people in the United States live each day on the edge of despair.
  3. The alienation and isolation of the poor today is not the work of a brutal few but of the indifference of many. Everyone has some share in the guilt — all who have exploited the poor, all who have stood aside or looked the other way, all who have responded in anger or cynicism.
  4. Beyond the details and incidents of the riots, beyond the agitators, lie problems of housing, education, unemployment, lack of recreational opportunities, and any other depressing conditions of life in the urban slums of America. To these have been added the limitations and restrictions which have been imposed on racial minorities.
  5. The right to work, not just to job equality but to  job opportunity, is a civil right in America today. …  An adequate program of public works should be advanced.

Nine months later he spoke in Newark NJ where he said, among other things,

  1. the unrest in our cities cannot, however, be written off as a ‘Negro problem.’ The riots are a product of many centuries of neglect and injustice on the part of our whole society, and are, therefore, an American problem–a challenge to our whole society to provide moral commitment and the commitment of resources that are necessary to alleviate the causes of despair in this country.
  2. There have been riots, and there have been studies, for nearly fifty years.
    1. The report following the Chicago riot of 1919 attributed much of the blame to poor housing, unemployment and inferior education of our Negroes.
    2. The report after the Watts riots of 1965 cited the same underlying causes.
    3. The excellent report that has just been issued by Governor  Hughes’ commission  makes the same findings in connection with the riots last summer in Newark and other New Jersey communities.
  3. But reports are not enough. What we need is action–and action now.  (and he went on to repeat his belief in the right to work, education, public health, home ownership, adequate urban transportation, and a wholesome environment.)
  4. “All of these involve an intellectual commitment,” he said, “but the final test of the American citizen must be in the moral field, where ultimately we ask that each person demonstrates the right attitudes toward the poor, right attitudes toward the deprived and the denied, toward those who cause us trouble and uneasiness. Our responsibility is not just to humanity in the abstract or to the nice and beautiful persons but to everyone in our society.”

He concluded by saying, “We have more knowledge, more power, more capability to solve these problems. We need not fail.”

McCarthy didn’t get the Democratic nomination, of course, Hubert Humphrey did, going on to lose magnificently to Richard Nixon — Nixon carried 32 states to Humphrey’s 13. (George Wallace got 5.)

But fifty years ago this week, March 12, 1968, Eugene McCarthy ran for president in New Hampshire and won enough votes, though  just 42%, to push Robert Kennedy into the race.  He had done what he’d originally wanted — to get RFK to run for president.  And we know what happened just a few months later. (Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in early June, hours after winning the California primary.)

McCarthy ran for president a few more times, each time garnering fewer and fewer votes. He left politics nearly unnoticed and turned his attention to poetry. In 1997 he read this poem of his on Minnesota National Public Radio:

The maple tree that night, because its time had come, without a wind or rain, let fall its leaves.
They fell, brown veined and spotted, like old hands fluttering in a blessing,
upon my head and shoulders, and then down in silence to my feet.
I stood and stood until the tree was bare and have told no one but you that I was there.

He died December 10, 2005, of complications from Parkinson’s, while l was in the Peace Corps. I learned of it only in preparing for this post. Here is his obituary in the New York Times.  Here is a piece from NPR that ran shortly after his death. 

This has been a somewhat dense post. Longer than usual, with very little of the coveted white space all the blogging gurus emphasize. Rather limited visuals, too. Thank you for staying with it through the end.

I know many of you are weary of politics, weary of the clamor, the noise, unsure perhaps of who to believe, knowing only that you need to stay sane. And self-care is vital; I know.  But, I’d like you to consider what a world we might have had had this somewhat sour man from Minnesota won the votes just fifty years ago this year. And what kind of candidate you’ll be seeking to help us end this current nightmare.

How about you? How important is personality when you go to vote? 

NEXT WEEK: We’ll take a look at empathy.

23 Responses

  1. Bernadette Laganella
    | Reply

    I want my representatives to be ladies an gentleman in the old fashioned meaning but personality is just a plus. I also worked and voted for “clean Gene”.
    Bernadette Laganella recently posted…Let Your Light ShineMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      “Clean Gene.” I’d forgotten that, Bernadette; thanks. And thanks for starting us off. I’ve taken a decidedly political bent this past year. Hopefully, it’ll be over come November.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  2. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I remember how my parents were disappointed that McCarthy did not get the nomination. (And remember how they actually chose the candidates at the conventions instead of confirming them?)

    I am more concerned with intelligence, integrity, knowledge, and character than I am with “personality.” I suppose because of media and social media candidates have to be performers as well, but look where we are now? UGHHHHH!
    Merril Smith recently posted…Icarus 2–QuadrilleMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      What a convention that was! The nominee (HHH) hadn’t entered a single primary. People were outraged. Violent confrontation in the streets with the Chicago police. I’m not sure any longer which is worse — predictable and competent politicians in charge making bad decisions or incompetent and unpredictable ideologues in charge making bad decisions.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    What memorable artifacts, Janet.

    I agree with Merril: personality takes a back seat to integrity, knowledge, and character. And I noticed that our problems are packaged differently now but still have the same qualities of fighting for human rights and social justice.

    By the way, my grandson, a contestant in the regional Scholar Bowl in his district, was given a question whose answer was MacCarthy. I don’t think any of the students got it right; they are eighth graders.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m sorry your grandson didn’t get it right. Wish I’d posted this one last month! Unfortunately, the good Gene McCarthy is often confused with that demagogue Joe McCarthy. I take a bizarre comfort in the fact that my country has had some really evil leadership over its history. And survived. Time will tell whether our nine lives are up or not.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

      • Marian Beaman
        | Reply

        I see I spelled the name wrong (ugh). Also, the question may have referred to Joe, not Gene McCarthy. I was on the edge of my seat during the contest. 🙁
        Marian Beaman recently posted…Magnificent Magnolia StoriesMy Profile

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          I leave it to you to be certain your grandchildren know the difference. The Case of the Two McCarthies. Hmmm. Do we have a new children’s book forming? Even their first names sound similar. Gene and Joe. Brrrr.
          Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  4. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    As an introvert, I’ve never been taken with people who I refer to as “personality kids.” So in answer to your question, for me personality/charisma take a back seat to smarts, conscientiousness, and integrity. Of course, anyone with these qualities is perceived as boring– which in our world of 24/7 news is the worst thing anyone can be.
    Ally Bean recently posted…Sunday Afternoon At The Nature Preserve: The Uneven Path TakenMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ally. Oh yes. 24/7 news is a great thing when there’s actual news to be seen. Unfortunately they must dig rather deep some days, especially to get the “Breaking News” that viewers seem addicted to. I read once that Laugh In (the comedy TV show of the late 60s) introduced us to the instant gratification/sound bite culture that we are now enmeshed in. Hmmm. That could make a blog post. Welcome back.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  5. Clive
    | Reply

    Charisma and personality may win votes but I’d prefer my politicians to be honest and sincere. Sadly, the masses seem to disagree, both in the US and over here in the UK.
    Clive recently posted…American Pi(e) Day 2018 – for Professor Stephen HawkingMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I imagine everyone believes their politicians are honest and sincere. Unfortunately. It’s like everyone hating Congress but loving their own Congressperson (yes; survey’s show…) We do seem attached to the idea that we must “love” whomever we’re voting for. There seems to be no place for a candidate who gets some issues “right” but not all. I believe we once called them a moderate. 🙂 Thanks for stopping back in.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  6. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, I always appreciate the in-depth research you provide in exploring topics (yes, I stuck with it until the end, captivated by McCarthy’s sane, humanitarian approach). You bring up such an important question about how we would be today if he had been elected, a sobering reality in this current political environment. Hopefully we , as voters, will learn from this relevant history lesson. No more celebrities or reality stars! Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kathy. As you know, I’ve been reading May Sarton’s At Seventy (for obvious reasons) and I noticed a few days ago that she talks about how she writes so she can understand. That is true for me too. I’m very glad you enjoy the posts. I try.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  7. Kate Pill
    | Reply

    Loved reading this. Thank you for an insight into this man.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you Kate. Unfortunately it’s more often that Joe McCarthy is remembered than Gene in US History classes.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  8. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — My vote goes to integrity, knowledge, and character. And like Merril, I remember my parent’s disappointment that McCarthy didn’t get the nomination.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Going the Right Way?My Profile

  9. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Thanks, Janet. I learned a good bit from this piece about Gene McCarthy, who was slightly before my time. Like others here, I’m not particularly drawn to big-charisma types of people, who I often find to be egotistic or phony. At the same time, I recognize that charisma wins elections, and would like to see my party offer up more candidates who can actually win. And now and again, charisma can be an actual virtue in a leader, such as when worthwhile ideas or causes need to be “sold” to everyday folks.
    Tim Fearnside recently posted…One Big LieMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Tim. You raise an interesting dilemma. I’ve long bemoaned the idea that the skill set for running and winning campaigns is very different from that needed to govern. Now you’ve given me a reason to believe perhaps there is some important overlap. Is this yet another area where salesmanship is called for? Hmmmm. Uh oh. Thanks for weighing in.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  10. Pamela
    | Reply

    Oh, dear. What a dear, intellectual, thoughtful politician. Wait. What? Those words usually don’t all come together. Although, I believe that Obama was dear, intellectual, and thoughtful. But our general society decided instead to vote for someone with the exact opposite adjectives. WHY? is the big question. I stayed through for this entire post because it rang of truth and light and beauty. I don’t want a politician full of charm. I want a politician/leader who speaks truth, shines light, cares about the plight of all, and is not self-absorbed in his/her own needs. Perhaps that’s way too much to ask for. In this day and age, to become a politician is a road through a deep dark tunnel.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Pam. May we all continue to speak our truth, shine our light, and embrace our beauty. And listen to each other. Thanks for modeling that.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back at 1968My Profile

  11. […] risk before getting into the primary race himself.  (See my post from March 14 on why I supported Eugene McCarthy.)  I sided with those who saw Bobby Kennedy as an […]

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