- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

The honorific “American original” is much abused, but few deserve it more than Eugene McCarthy, who died Dec. 10 at the age of 89.

America remembers Mr. McCarthy as the man who challenged President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary in the 1968, ending the Johnson presidency by winning little more than 40 percent of the vote. LBJ won less than a majority, too. Mr. McCarthy became the candidate of choice for the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But he was much more than that. Gene McCarthy was an independent thinker and a man of conscience who, relishing the role of gadfly, injected honesty into the political debate. (He was also, as he would be pleased to have pointed out, a pretty fair first baseman in his youth.)

No one was ever fully satisfied with Mr. McCarthy, and to good effect: He was a disappointment to leftists for refusing to indulge antipathy to American interests and sympathy for enemies of America. He irritated conservatives over the years, too, though his courage in the face of the vindictive LBJ was much admired, and the irritation all but vanished in the later years. A biographer described him as “a skeptic about reform, about do-gooders, about the power of the state and the competence of government, and about the liberal reliance upon material cures for social problems.” He endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980 because, he said, anyone was better than Jimmy Carter. For his criticism of campaign-finance reform, the Conservative Political Action Conference gave him an award in 2000. They shared an enthusiasm for the First Amendment.

It happens that Gene McCarthy, an unrepentant liberal, had kept up a cordial and gentlemanly relationship with this newspaper from our early days. This was part of his late career as a writer in his last three decades — not just of political commentary, but a breadth of forms, including poetry, history, reviews and criticism. In his last piece for The Washington Times, on Nov. 10, 1997, his subject, nominally speaking, was public relations and spin. But his real subject was the corrupting influence of politics on the soul, and the antecedents in history. “Political counseling and public relations did not begin with Machiavelli, and will not end with Dick Morris,” he wrote. Political counseling began with Cassiodorus, adviser of sorts to Emperor Theodoric, whose chief role “appears to have been praising the emperor, reassuring him, advising him and protecting him and his family from harsh public judgment… [He] wrote the equivalent of press releases for the emperor [and] was noted for never saying anything bad about a living person.” He was “not unlike Cyrus Vance,” Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state. “Cassiodorus’s time of public service ended about 536. Almost immediately, the Gothic Empire fell apart. Hail Cassiodorus. Hail Morris.”

Only a wise and thoughtful man could spot the Cassiodoruses. Eugene McCarthy could, exposing their fallacies and pointing to greater and more profound things. May he rest in peace.

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