Anyone old enough to remember the political tumult of the '60s conjures up a vivid image of Minnesota's Eugene McCarthy, that appealing, seemingly non-political U.S. senator who was the first Democrat willing to campaign against a president of his own party over the troubling issue of the Vietnam War.
Once ex-professor McCarthy successfully tapped a reservoir of enthusiastic support from thousands of college kids who went "clean for Gene," the presidential race changed dramatically.In a much quoted line, McCarthy told Johnny Carson that he thought he would be "an adequate president." While Hubert Humphrey ended up getting the Democratic nomination to run against Richard Nixon in 1968, it was McCarthy who was chiefly responsible for Lyndon Johnson's surprising decision not to run for re-election.
Three years later, McCarthy retired from politics, but came back at the urging of supporters to try again for the presidency in 1976 and again in 1992 as an independent.
The author of 20 previous books, including four collections of poetry, McCarthy is an endearing intellectual with an understated, gentle wit. Over the years, he has written numerous articles for Harper's, The New Republic and The Christian Science Monitor. In this alternately funny and profound book on presidential politics, McCarthy candidly comments on a wide range of issues. He blames George Bush for inadvertently creating the " `no fault presidency' - if things went wrong, no one was responsible and no one was to blame. If things went well, everyone was responsible and it was the credit of the president."
McCarthy is very critical of the modern practice of presidents relying on speech writers instead of writing their own words. That habit, he says, creates a president who says the words, but is not responsible for them. Thus Bush could talk about the "thousand points of light" and say, "Read my lips - no new taxes," but Peggy Noonan was really responsible.
His most prescient comments are reserved for the modern special prosecutor law that enabled a federal investigation of presidential corruption. He calls Kenneth Starr's probe into the Clintons "all inclusive and all intrusive," starting with Whitewater and keeping up-to-the-minute with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky.
In McCarthy's opinion, "The office of special prosecutor is an essentially undemocratic office with an essentially fascistic writ of power. It is also a guarantee of increased public disaffection, of legal distraction and expense on a grand scale and of potential government paralysis."
In terms of political figures, McCarthy has the most respect for Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic nominee for president against Dwight Eisenhower. Stevenson, says McCarthy, "loved chivalry, truth and honor, generosity and courtesy."
It is McCarthy's considered opinion that the two-party system has evolved into a chaotic one. Whimsically, he suggests that the donkey symbol for the Democratic Party and the elephant symbol for the Republican are no longer effective.
In a telephone interview about his book, McCarthy suggested the best symbol for Ross Perot is the aardvark. "According to natural history, the aardvark didn't evolve from anything, and it's not evolving into anything. It's kind of a one-time absolute animal. It has no metaphor. And I think that was the case with Perot - it was just, `here I am and now I'm not here.' "
Among the accomplishments in Congress of which he is most proud McCarthy mentions his consistent challenges to the anti-communist zealotry of the '50s and his debate with Sen. Joe McCarthy on the radio in 1952 when no one else would debate him.
Today, McCarthy is an excellent example of a statesman who has acquired enough wisdom to provide a sense of balance about politics in America.