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December 10, 2005

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Richard Pryor, too? Bad day.

As I noted on your Diary at Daily Kos, to the chagrin of my SDS pals, I joined the "Clean for Gene" troops and eventually wound up as an alternative delegate from Colorado to the Democratic Convention in Chicago. I was 21. Seven of us from various parts of the country rented a hotel room together.

It was clear from long before the convention that McCarthy was going to lose, and after a day of watching Chicago's Finest beat antiwar protestors in the streets, several of us decided to join the demonstrations. Along with scores of others, I was arrested, booked and released five times and clubbed to the ground by the cops twice in the next three days.

Three months later, because the Democrats were split on the left by those who couldn't bring themselves to vote for Hubert Humphrey because of the war and even more on the right by the Wallaceites who hated Humphrey for his civil rights activism, Richard Nixon won the presidency.

I can't tell you how many times over the intervening years that I heard people - including Democrats - say McCarthy was a coward. Nothing could be further from true. Although my politics were far to the left of his and remain so, his courage and principles made him a hero in my eyes.

I'll miss him.

Thanks for your post.

McCarthy wrote a very funny little 'taxonomy' of Washington politics several years ago - one of the funniest political books I've ever read. It seems to be out of print and unlocatable (not on Amazon and google isn't turning it up), but definitely worth reading if anybody runs across it.

My first campaign was McCarthy '76, I must have been twelve at the time. He was so eloquent about the problems of the two-party system. John Anderson and Ralph Nader reaped the rewards of that run, I think, but I'm afraid he was so correct about the core issue that no one will be able to break into the two-party club for a long time.

I got a chance to know Gene McCarthy in the early 60's when I first moved to Minnesota, and Joined the DFL. In 1964 I carried his literature doing district doorknocking, and eventually got invited to one of his "Seminars" which was a mix of poetry reading, a book discussion circle, and reform politics planning. In the Johnson/Humphry sweap of 1964, McCarthy had no problem winning re-election. But after the election, I stuck with the seminar as I found the Reform politics very much of interest.

In 1966 we had something of a preview of 1968 in that we created a reform slate of state and local candidates -- and party officers, and organized people who were pro-reform, pro-civil rights and anti-war to flood the precinct caucuses, oust the old guard, and by electing new officers, create the power to write new party rules. We failed vis a vis the Governor's race -- our younger and more progressive Sandy Keith eventually lost the primary to the more old guard and older Karl Rolvaag, and then Rolvaag lost in the General -- but below that office we came to understand the power of organization, and a good deal of those tactics became gospel in McCarthy's 1968 campaign.

I remember McCarthy coming to various insurgency-reform meetings in 1966, always with a new poem or two to read to the assembly -- always able to move back and forth easily between his rich observations on tactical and organizational matters -- and a poem or bit of prose on something you had to struggle to relate to the immediate political concern.

One must remember that Gene McCarthy ran for President four times -- not just in 68, but the last three were more about trying to break up the political monoply than about any plan to win anything. One of my good friends, Alpha Smaby was his VP designee -- she was the first elected official in the US to come out against the Vietnam War (in 1965) and for that she lost her legislative seat. Alpha had been one of the founders for ADA back in the 40's -- and was one of the authors of Humphrey's 1948 Sunshine Speech. She was also a long time friend of Eleanor Roosevelt's.

Gene McCarthy's former wife, Abigale, wrote a biography in the late 60's, called "Private Lives, Public Faces" which I assume is long out of print, but best explains the political roots of what McCarthy did in 1968. In one passage she describes the end of a long winter on the Minnesota-North Dakota border when wagons were sent round to the isolated farmsteads and very small towsn to pick up the women who had "gone mad" in the horrid isolation of those days -- no radio, no phone -- just five months of taking care of kids, cows, and all in blizzards that cut off the chance to go to town or even to church. Of course the "mad women" were hauled off to the state mental hospital, but only when the mud in the rutted roads sufficently dried. Both of them knew something of that early 20th century life -- and it was out of that they formed their politics.

Still have not heard what the home state has planned for a memorial or a funeral, but there are lots of people who hope it involves a laid back and semi (but only semi) sober Irish Wake with good stories.

thanks for that, Sara.

For anyone who wants two excellent hours of audio on McCarthy from lots of Minnesota types, DF: and Otherwise, bo to the Minnesota Public Radio site -- I think it is MPR.org -- and look for the "Midday" program from Monday. You will find two hours of material. The first hour is mostly very recent commentary -- the second hour is from MPR's archives of their own interviews with Gene McCarthy and includes parts of speeches, recent and otherwise. One interesting segment is McCarthy's comments in 2003 on the similarity between Vietnam and Iraq.

Gene McCarthy's "An American Bestiary" is available -new and used- on Amazon, just do a search on Eugene McCarthy and you'll find lots of his books - also on half.com. Quite a few are still in print.

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