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Saturday, 24 March 2018

The Typewriting Poet Presidential Candidate

At a time when typewriting poets seem to be proliferating by the day, particularly in a country where the prevailing President wouldn't know a poem from a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, it's interesting to recall that 50 years ago a US Presidential candidate was a typewriting poet.
We visited the National Library of Australia in Canberra today, where the library's golden jubilee is being celebrated with an exhibition of all things 1968. Afterwards, discussing many of the tumultuous events which occurred that unforgettable year, the name of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy came into the conversation. By sheer chance, later in the day, I came across this article (I was looking for something else entirely) from LIFE magazine on April 12, 1968:
When Eugene Joseph McCarthy died in Washington DC on December 10, 2005, aged 89, his obituary described him as "one of the most intelligent and witty American politicians of the post-war period, and the leader of the Democratic revolt against the Vietnam War which forced the withdrawal of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. To hardened observers it seemed extraordinary that so fastidious a man - a poet who described himself as 'mired in complexity', an intellectual who recoiled from the crude slogans of electioneering - should have proved such a force. 'How is the Senator this morning?' someone asked McCarthy's daughter Mary in 1968. 'Oh! Alienated as usual,' she replied.
"But McCarthy's willingness to stick his neck out, and to oppose the Vietnam War, in defiance of both the Democratic Party machine and of the notoriously vindictive President Johnson, bestowed a powerful romantic aura. His stand was in contrast to that of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who felt that it would be unwise to oppose the President in a year when he himself was up for re-election as Senator. Likewise, Senator Robert Kennedy refused at first to prejudice his presidential ambitions by striking at the crown too early. For McCarthy the die was cast when the Attorney-General declared that the President need not necessarily obtain the consent of Congress before declaring war. 'There's nothing left but to take it to the people,' McCarthy declared, in announcing his candidacy."
He was certainly very different. He preferred to confer with the poet Robert Lowell than with the pundit James Reston. "I've grown a little disturbed," he told an assembly of agriculturists, "that almost everything the Church tried to give up at the Vatican Council has been picked up by the Defence Department - the idea of grace in office, a little hint of infallibility, a kind of revival of the ideas of heresy and of holy wars, the Inquisition, a kind of index on publications. The Pentagon is even beginning to talk Latin, and has given a contract to a Californian company for a study entitled Pax Americana." When a voter lamented having to choose between Johnson and Richard Nixon, McCarthy readily sympathised. "I know," he said. "That's like choosing between vulgarity and obscenity, isn't it?" He inflicted the first electoral defeat any of the Kennedy brothers in 28 elections. But when the inevitable end to his candidature came - the Democrats heavies hated him - McCarthy turned to sports writing (what else?) and covered the World Baseball Series for LIFE (which patently loved him). (McCarthy had been a very handy baseball player himself, at St John's Catholic College, Minnesota.) As his obituary (obviously written pre-Trump) said about his 1968 exit, "It was a sour, but characteristic end to the most extraordinary campaign in modern American politics."
After entering federal politics in 1949, McCarthy became the ringleader of a group of young liberals, mostly from the Mid-West, known as McCarthy's Marauders. He was also an early opponent of Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witch-hunting, and in a memorable television debate in 1952 parodied Joe McCarthy's selective way of using of facts to "prove" that General Douglas MacArthur was a Communist pawn in Asia. He once said, "I'm twice as liberal as Hubert Humphrey, twice as intelligent as Stuart Symington, and twice as Catholic as Jack Kennedy." In 1967 he also took up writing poetry, and was a million times the poet Donald Trump is:
In 1997 McCarthy published a collection of poetry entitled Cool Reflections: Poetry For The Who, What, When, Where and Especially Why of It All. 


Peter said...

It's early morning here, and I have already learned something today! I had no idea of McCarthy's penchant for poetry. However, I am aware of another poetic president: Jimmy Carter. In fact, he is quite a prolific author, and my book collection includes an autographed copy of one of his many books. Among his works is a volume of poetry: "Always a Reckoning, and other poems". I can't vouch for the quality of his poetry, but Jimmy Carter's works in service to his fellow man set the standard for all of us.

Bill M said...

I too did not know he was a poet. I do remember 1968 & Johnson & all the politics. I remember that cover of Life, but I do not know if I ever read that issue.
Good work Robert.

Johnpyyc said...

A blast from the past.

I was 14 when McCarthy was at his prime. I didn't follow politics to the same level I do today, but he was a lightning rod for the left and probably when you think back solidified the support for Nixon.

Very interesting post.


Richard P said...

It's news to me, too, that McCarthy was a poet. And not a bad one.