Eugene McCarthy

Peter Montgomery

Peter Montgomery on Eugene McCarthy (March 29, 1916, Minnesota – December 10, 2005, Washington, DC)

by Peter Montgomery

Poetic Ancestors, Issue 13:4, Spring 2012

“There is a long-standing tradition in America of scoffing at poets, especially if they show any interest in politics.”  Eugene McCarthy

Photo: Library of Congress

Photo: Library of Congress

Eugene McCarthy is a singular figure in American political history.  He was an academic who became an influential political thinker and member of Congress.  He had the courage to take on the powerful red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy when few others dared.  He changed the course of history when his anti-war presidential campaign in 1968 energized a generation of activists and pushed President Lyndon Baines Johnson to withdraw his bid for reelection.   And he was a prolific writer and accomplished poet, whose literary sensibilities are evident even in his political writing.

It’s difficult to imagine a national political figure today quoting Walt Whitman while campaigning, as McCarthy did, or bringing along a poet, as he did with his close friend Robert Lowell, who called McCarthy a one-man Greek chorus.  But McCarthy himself would admit that literary allusions did not always help on the campaign trail, as he noted in a reflection on experiencing defeat.   “The most memorable morning after for me was in the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I had lost the Nebraska primary of 1968, a defeat I had thought almost certain after two campaign stops. One was at a university and the other in the heart of the land of O Pioneers! My references to Willa Cather stirred no response.”

“If any of you are secret poets,” he once joked, “the best way to break into print is to run for the presidency.”

McCarthy was born and bred in Minnesota, where he was imbued with his mother’s Catholicism.  As a high school kid he was an athlete and a scholar, reading through his aunt’s Harvard Classics one after another.  McCarthy studied briefly to be a monk at a Benedictine monastery; after he withdrew he attended the order’s St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.  Before entering politics he taught economics and sociology at St. Johns and then St. Thomas College, with service during World War II as an intelligence officer.  He won his seat in Congress in 1948 after taking on an entrenched Republican.  Five terms and ten years later, he ran for and was elected to the US Senate, where he served until 1970.

He spent many years as a force in Democratic Party politics.  During the late 1950s, he led a group of congressmen – “McCarthy’s Mavericks” – who drafted “A Liberal Manifesto” on education, civil rights, health, housing, foreign aid, and “atomic policy.” It developed into the Democratic Study Group, which helped pass much of the Kennedy-Johnson agenda and which continues today as an influential source of policy and strategy for Democratic House members.

In 1960, at Eleanor Roosevelt’s urging, he placed Adlai Stevenson’s name into nomination at the Democratic convention in what is still considered one of the great convention speeches.  That speech helped put him on Johnson’s short list for potential vice presidential picks in 1964.  He even reportedly played a role in secret conversations with the Cuban government that began after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, meeting then-trade minister Che Guevara in the living room of a journalist who was helping to broker the secret talks.

As a politician, McCarthy was an admirer of legislative skill, and sometimes dismissive of reformers.  He wrote in his memoir that the legislative accomplishments of the 1950s and 1960s were achieved with the support of powerful if not exactly saintly Democratic congressional delegations – victories, he said, that “serve as historic support of the poet William Stafford’s warning, ‘If you purify the pond, the water lilies die.’”

McCarthy launched his long-shot 1968 presidential bid when he realized the Johnson administration was not going to alter its policy on Vietnam.  He has said that his daughter convinced him to run by telling him the role of Christians is not to judge the world but to save it.  He described his campaign in “Are You Running with Me, Jesus,” a poem that borrowed the title of the best-selling book by “coffeehouse priest” Malcom Boyd.  The poem references Boyd, Billy Graham, George Romney (father of Mitt), and Senator William Proxmire.

To McCarthy’s surprise, a volunteer army of college students who put on dresses or shaved their beards to get “Clean for Gene” flooded into New Hampshire to campaign for him.  When he drew an astonishing 42 percent against the sitting president, Johnson appeared vulnerable.  Robert Kennedy jumped into the race.  And Johnson, seeing the writing on the wall, announced he would not seek or accept the Democratic Party nomination.   Kennedy was assassinated on the night he narrowly defeated McCarthy in the California primary; McCarthy reportedly retreated for a while to St. Johns Abbey, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey went on to claim the nomination based not on primary victories but on his power among party insiders.

McCarthy began burning bridges with his Democratic friends and colleagues when he declined to campaign for Humphrey in 1968: some blamed him for Richard Nixon’s victory.  He made additional quixotic, some would say self-indulgent, runs for the presidency – DC readers may be interested to know that his 1976 campaign as an independent was managed by local pundit Mark Plotkin.  He explored a run for Congress from Minnesota in 1974 and actually ran for the Democratic nomination for US Senate in 1982, both times generating some mocking contempt from local media and activists, according to historian Dominic Sandbrook.  And he threw his hat in the presidential ring one more time in 1992, getting as far as a debate stage with Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown in Buffalo, New York, at which one news report said he spent most of his time doodling on a pad and denouncing other politicians.

McCarthy the politician had been known as a liberal’s liberal, but after he left behind the Senate and feelings of loyalty to the Democratic Party, he ranged far afield.  He considered Jimmy Carter’s presidency disastrous and in October 1980 publicly backed Ronald Reagan. An Associated Press report said the endorsement “couldn’t come at a better time” for Reagan, who told reporters, “Maybe this will give people some confidence I don’t eat my young.”

McCarthy opposed campaign finance reforms that limited the size of individual contributions; such rules would have impeded his 1968 campaign, which was bankrolled by wealthy liberals.  He was a plaintiff in the Buckley v. Valeo case in which the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on campaign spending.  He said the scheme that offered public financing to major party candidates was akin to having two established religions.  He testified in opposition to the McCain-Feingold law and received an award from the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2000.  He also became a critic of affirmative action and came to regret his support for 1965 immigration reforms, joining the board of advisors for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for restrictions on immigration.

He also, however, repeatedly sounded the alarm about the growth of corporate power.  He was a fan of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell warning about the military-industrial complex, which McCarthy entered into the Congressional Record.  Twenty-five years ago, he wrote, “The power of corporations must be curbed and directed, for that power now threatens the public good in business, finance, and in broader areas of culture. The corporation is not a person with full moral and social responsibilities. It is a legal construct….”

McCarthy’s 1987 memoir, Up ‘Til Now, offers little if any insight into his personal life, perhaps because, it has been reported, he had a long-time relationship after separating from but never divorcing his wife, with whom he had five children.  Up ‘Til Now is a reflection on his years in political life, his thoughts on the institutions of Congress and the executive branch, and his evaluations of many of the political figures he worked with and against.  He doesn’t talk about his own poetry, but he often uses poetry to help him make a point or describe an individual.  He characterizes Sen. Wayne Morse by citing a poem by Welshman Vernon Watkins about poet Dylan Thomas and his love of place.  He quotes Geoffrey Chaucer to describe Adlai Stevenson: a worthy knight who “loved chivalry, truth, honour, generosity, and courtesy.” He mentions reading to the ailing Sen. Philip Hart from the Gaelic poet Antoine Raftery.

While he tried hard to keep his ideas in circulation, after 1968 he was never again taken seriously as a politician, and that seemed to rankle him.  “Defeat in politics, even relative failure, is not easy to accept,” he once wrote. “Dismissing the troops, as both Napoleon and Robert E. Lee learned, is not easy. Soldiers do not want to take their horses and mules and go back to the spring plowing. It is better to win.”

But McCarthy continued to write and speak.  “For more than two decades Eugene McCarthy was a politician who was also a writer; now for almost three decades he has been a writer who is also a politician,” wrote John Callahan in the introduction to Parting Shots from My Brittle Bow, a 2004 collection of McCarthy’s writings.  The title is taken from the final stanza of “Courage at Sixty.”

“Broken things are powerful.”
Things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is truest.

McCarthy did not return to Minnesota after he left the Senate; he bought property in Rappahannock County, Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains and lived there until reluctantly entering a retirement home in Georgetown.  “I feel like I’m on a cruise ship on the River Styx,” his old friend and progressive activist Sam Smith remembers him saying. “The line between assisted living and assisted dying is very thin.”

McCarthy could until his final days be counted on to recite poetry, others’ as well as his own. Journalist Bill Press, writing on McCarthy’s death, recalled, “Carol and I hosted his 87th birthday at our home. Sen. Tom Daschle was a special guest, but Sen. McCarthy was the star of the show, proudly reciting several of his own poems. He could recite from memory almost 100 poems by his favorite poet, W.B. Yeats

McCarthy’s own poetry and prose ranged widely.  In “I’m Sorry I Was Right,” a short documentary prepared for public television before McCarthy’s death, narrator Robert Bly says, “He writes about sports, democracy and American history.  He writes and recites poems about Vietnam, courage, and chickens with their heads cut off.”  And, it could be added, about fountains, trees, dogs, and other poets; his Selected Poems includes poems written to or about Lowell, Austin Clarke, James Dickey, Robert Frost, Katie Louhheim, and Marianne Moore.  It also includes reflections on aging, such as “Courage at Sixty” and “Lament of an Aging Politician” (“My metaphors grow cold and old / My enemies, both young and bold.”), and, fittingly for a writer best known for his opposition to the Vietnam war, “Vietnam Message,” “Ares,” “Kilroy,” and “My Lai Conversation.”   Bly’s mention of chickens is a reference to the wonderful “The Death of the Old Plymouth Rock Hen,” which is among several poems McCarthy can be heard reading in the documentary.

As a poet, McCarthy was more than a dabbler or dilettante.  In addition to several books of poems, McCarthy’s work appears in major magazines and anthologies.  For example, five poems from Ground Fog and Night were published in the January 1979 edition of Harper’s Magazine.

Poet and Emerson College professor Daniel Tobin included McCarthy’s “No Country for the Young” in The Book of Irish American Poetry (University of Notre Dame).  Speaking  to public radio’s “All Things Considered” in 2005, Tobin said of McCarthy:

He was a real poet. He practiced the art of poetry, consistently. He wrote a lot of poems. You could tell by the constant voice in the poems that he was serious about the art…He’s very clearly a serious poet who sees himself both connected to the American landscape and to the Irish landscape of poetry…I don’t know if he would be a major American poet, that might be a lot to ask for someone. There are very few of those…I would say that his poems would stand up on his own right as works of art that deserve to be read, if not major works, strong works of poetry. Perhaps if he were not a politician devoting most of his time to public life he might have been able to spend more time devoted to the art and become a very good well known poet.

Columnist George Will also recalled McCarthy as a “talented poet” and suggested that in “The Tamarack,” McCarthy “surely summarized his experience” of having taken the risk to challenge Johnson and then having Kennedy jump into the race. The poem begins:

The tamarack tree is the saddest tree of all;
it is the first tree to invade the swamp,
and when it makes the soil dry enough,
the other trees come and kill it.

Perhaps that same experience explains McCarthy’s fondness for “The Bear Hunt,” a poem by Abraham Lincoln (yes, that Abraham Lincoln, who McCarthy believed wrote some poems of seriousness and quality).  The poem describes a hunt in which a “short legged fice” (a mongrel) yelps far behind the pack of hunting dogs until the bear has been chased down and shot.  Then, while the hunters “argufy” over the hide, the dog arrives on the scene:

With grinning teeth, and up-turned hair
Brim full of spunk and wrath,
He growls and seizes on the dead bear,
And shakes for life and death.

And swells as if his skin would tear,
And growls and shakes again;
And swears as plain as a dog can swear,
That he has won the skin.

Conceited whelp! We laugh at thee
or mind, that not a few
Of Pompous, two-legged dogs there be
Conceited quite as you

McCarthy’s own pointed wit earned him the nickname “the needle” among his Senate colleagues.  Notable examples include his comment on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion: “The Kennedy administration is not going to make any little mistakes.”  And on George Romney’s complaint that American military officials had brainwashed him regarding Vietnam:  “I would have thought a light rinse would be sufficient.”

He also believed that Congress suffered from too much legalistic thinking:

I may have been prejudiced against lawyer members of Congress, having run against one or two and having been threatened politically by a few others, and also because my own professional background was academic, principally in the liberal arts.  Good lawyers, I asserted in campaigns, can be found in the yellow pages of the telephone books. Good historians, or political and social philosophers, are not so easily found or classified.

McCarthy, indeed, is not easily classified.  In spite of bitter breaks with the Democratic Party and some of his old friends, toward the end of his life, McCarthy visited Minnesota and was received affectionately by officials there, including then-Sen. Paul Wellstone.  It seems likely that in spite of his feuds and ideological drift, he will be remembered mostly for the way he went out on a political limb in 1968 and galvanized so many young activists who continued in lives of activism and public service – including Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.

Albert Eisele, currently editor and columnist at The Hill newspaper, covered McCarthy as a journalist for Minnesota newspapers.  In 1972 he authored a dual biography of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey; when McCarthy died he wrote a remembrance in which he reaffirmed words he had written more than three decades earlier:

Eugene McCarthy showed that it is possible for one man to make a difference in a democratic society, and that not even the immense power of the presidency can withstand the opposition from a public aroused by a man who speaks out against what he sees as an immoral action by government. Whether he is destined  to be remembered as the midwife of a new day in American politics, or merely as a brilliant gadfly of the old, it is clear that American politics in the future will reflect the dedication to reforming political processes and limiting executive power that is the common denominator of Eugene McCarthy’s public career.

Eisele also recalls celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley, who once worked as a press aide in McCarthy’s office, saying, “McCarthy stood up alone in 1968 to protest what he saw as an immoral war. He galvanized young people throughout the country. They gave up their jobs and set aside their educations to work for his campaign. You saw them [at a Washington memorial service for McCarthy], grey and wrinkled but still proud of having once been a part of something decent and honorable.”

With respect to the role McCarthy’s poetry will have in his place in history, one admirer wrote in a DailyKos diary commemorating the fifth anniversary of McCarthy’s death, “…beyond the history-changing actions McCarthy took, and inspired, his poetry is well-crafted, resonant and founded on the vision of a mordant eye. It may vivify his political record long after most such accountings are obscured by time, neglect and entropy.”


Note: McCarthy was so prolific that it is hard to suggest with confidence that any list of his writings is comprehensive.

“The Day Time Began,” published as a single poem in pamphlet form, 1968.
Other Things and the Aardvark, Doubleday, 1970
Ground Fog and Night, Bookthrift Co., 1979
Gene McCarthy’s Minnesota: Memories of a Native Son, first published 1982, Winston  Press [This volume is a mixture of poetry and prose]
Cool Reflections: Poetry for the Who, What, Where, and Especially Why of it All, edited by Craig Wisooker, National Library of Poetry, 1997 (Note: I saw one reference that this was first published during the 1968 campaign but could not confirm.)
Selected Poems, Lone Oak Press, 1997

Some other books by Eugene McCarthy
Frontiers in American Democracy, World Pub., 1960
The Crescent Dictionary of American Politics, Macmillan, 1962
A Liberal Answer to the Conservative Challenge, Praeger, 1964
The Limits of Power: America’s Role in the World, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967
The Year of the People, Doubleday, 1969
The McCarthy Wit, (Bill Adler, editor) Fawcett Gold Medal, 1969
Mr. Racoon and His Friends (children’s book), Academy Press, 1977
A Political Bestiary, by Eugene J. McCarthy and James J. Kilpatrick, McGraw-Hill, 1979
Complexities and Contrarities, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982
Up Til Now: A Memoir, Landmark Books, 1987
Required Reading: A Decade of Political Wit and Wisdom, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988
Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work, by Eugene McCarthy and William McGaughey, Praeger, 1989
A Colony of the World: The United States Today, Hippocrene Books, 1992
No-Fault Politics, Time Books, 1998
1968: War and Democracy, Lone Oak Press, 2000
Hard Years: Antidotes to Authoritarians, Lone Oak Press, 2001
Parting Shots from My Brittle Brow: Reflections on American Politics and Life, Fulcrum Pub., 2005

Sources and Additional Resources
Eugene J. McCarthy Papers, 1947-1970 Minnesota Historical Society
Eugene J. McCarthy Papers –  University of Minnesota
Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of American Postwar Liberalism, Dominic Sandbrook, Anchor, 2005
Almost to the Presidency; a Biography of Two American Politicians by Albert Eisele, Piper, 1972
“Eugene McCarthy, Who Galvanized a Generation of War Opponents, Dies,” Minnesota Public Radio news feature, which includes a download of interview with Daniel Tobin about McCarthy’s poetry
The McCarthy Tapes – Minnesota Public Radio documentary of McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign
“I’m Sorry I was Right,” Documentary directed and written by Mike Hazard with narration by Robert Bly, the Center for International Education.
“Lunch with Gene,” recollections by friend Sam Smith, who as a vice president of
Americans for Democratic Action in 1992 put McCarthy’s name into
nomination for the group’s endorsement
“Eugene McCarthy: Poet & Patriot,” Albert Eisele patriot.-a0145058339
“Eugene McCarthy: poet, philosopher, politician,” Bill Press column, Tribune Media Services,  January 1, 2006
“Kilroy is Absent Without Leave,”  entry by DailyKos diarist slangist, December 12, 2010
“The poet who took on LBJ,” George Will, December 14, 2005
“National Poetry Month—Eugene McCarthy “Mai Li Conversation,” Patrick Murfin, April 12, 2012


Eugene McCarthy (March 29, 1916—December 10, 2005) served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959 and the U.S. Senate from 1959 to 1971, as a Democrat representing Minnesota. He ran for US President five times. McCarthy is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including a memoir, and five books of poems.

Peter Montgomery is a DC-based freelancer who writes primarily for progressive nonprofits and media outlets. He is a senior fellow at People For the American Way and contributes to its Right Wing Watch blog. To read more by this author: Peter Montgomery: Mapping the City