FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Lunch with Gene: Notes on a napkin

Monday, May 30, 2011

Lunch with Gene: Notes on a napkin

From our archives. . . .

Sam Smith

OVER THE PAST QUARTER CENTURY or so, Mark Plotkin and I would have occasional lunches with Eugene McCarthy. Plotkin, now a political commentator for Washington radio station WTOP, had been McCarthy's campaign manager when he ran as an independent for president in 1976. The lunches were at such places as Duke Zeibert's - a haven for the untight powerful - and later at the Review conference room at La Tomate Restaurant - AKA the table just southwest of the bar. Between lunches, Gene McCarthy would write poetry, books of essays, columns (which I happily published in this journal), drink coffee at the H&J Grocery in Sperryville, Virginia, and, when the mood struck him, run for president. During or after lunch I would invariably find myself scribbling a few words on a napkin or in my butt pilot, the small note pad I keep in my back pocket. Here are some the things these notes recall. . .


DURING THE 1976 CAMPAIGN, while McCarthy and Plotkin were in Florida, Bill Veeck announced that he was reactivating Minnie Minoso for eight at-bats so he could claim to have played over four decades. Veeck was always coming up with ideas. Some weren't so great, like putting his players in short pants, but some became traditions like having the announcer sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. When Chicagoan Plotkin read the Minoso story he quickly came up with another idea for Veeck: have him reactivate former Soo Leaguer Eugene McCarthy. Gene was excited and Plotkin made the call. Veeck had just one question: "Can he hit?" Plotkin assured him that McCarthy was a strong hitter. There was a long pause and then the reply, "Nah. . . Daley would kill me."


ONCE WE WERE having lunch at Duke's when Rob Reiner came into the room. McCarthy rose to greet him and the much shorter Reiner, clearly delighted to see him, rushed forward and then hesitated, asking "Do you do hugs?" Gene did.


ON ANOTHER OCCASION former Indiana Senator Vance Hartke sat down with us. As he approached, Plotkin said, "Here comes one half of Bayh and Bought." Hartke had been one of the first senators to come out against the Vietnam war, but after leaving the Senate he lowered his sights somewhat, lobbying for riverboat gambling and getting caught at the age of 77 violating state election laws. He was convicted and put on probation. Hartke told us of visiting Governor Roger Branigan one morning. The governor was on his second whiskey and said to Hartke, "You know, I never wanted to be governor, I just wanted to be elected governor."


ANOTHER SENATOR Gene liked was the one from the west who, when things got real bad, would say, 'It's antelope time. Nothin' to do but paint a white stripe down the back of your pants and run with the antelopes."


LONG BEFORE JERRY FALWELL, there was the colorful Catholic television character, Bishop Fulton Sheen, who not only spread the gospel but gave the future star of 'West Wing' his stage name. Sheen stayed in character off the set. McCarthy recalled sitting with him in a restaurant as a waitress took the orders. When she came to the customer in the fancy robes, she said, "And what do you want, cock robin?" 


MINNESOTA, Gene explained, was a place where people committed their sins in English, confessed in German and were absolved in Latin.


I ONCE MENTIONED Wisconsin to Gene and received in return the unpremeditated bias of populist and Nordic Minnesota towards its German neighbor: "Oh they're just a bunch of socialists over there."


GENE VISITED MAINE ONCE. How'd you like it, I asked. "Well, it seems that all the women look like men and I got real interested in these places called redemption centers until I found they were just for old soda bottles."


GENE BELIEVED that the Senate was like a herd of cattle while the House acted more like hogs. The former would willing follow one steer with a sense of direction but the latter needed to be stampeded.


PRESIDENT EISENHOWER, recalled McCarthy, always asked God to care for the country while he was asleep. Gene said this was one reason he liked nighttime the best although he worried about those on the west coast because of the time differential.


GENE TOOK TENNIS LESSONS from Allie Ritzenberg at St. Alban's School in the shadow of the National Cathedral. Many of Washington's most prominent went there to release whatever aggressions were left over from their day job. Ritzenberg, when he wasn't winning titles himself, coached people like Jackie Kennedy, Katherine Graham and Robert McNamara. McCarthy viewed McNamara as a coward for showing up on the courts early in the morning when no one was around to see how badly he played. Gene told Ritzenberg that he was responsible for the Vietnam War because he kept hitting to McNamara's strength thereby boosting his ego. Then McNamara would go to the Pentagon and escalate the real battle.


SENATOR ROBERT KERR once asked McCarthy for help freeing Oklahoma from the onerous provisions of the pending highway beautification act. Gene agreed and gave a moving speech in which he pointed out that billboards actually improved the scenery of Oklahoma.


WHEN THE VALERIE PLAME case came up I asked Gene whether there was an easy way to tell who was the CIA operative in an American embassy. Just look for the staffer who shows the least respect towards the ambassador, he replied.


SOMEONE asked what Gene would do if he were to become pope. He replied that he would cut the Ten Commandments down to four and reorder them.


GENE had other novel solutions. He favored prayer in school but only on court-ordered buses. He also suggested that pregnant women be allowed to drive down the HOV-2 lane, an argument that would later end up in court.


HE LIKE PRINCIPLES YOU COULD FOLLOW: "An old Congressman - I think it was Brad Spencer - said, 'I'll tell you, young men, you may make a mistake once in a while, but vote against everything that starts with 're.'

He said, 'Vote against all reorganizations.'

'Vote against all recodifications.

'Vote against all resolutions.'

They hadn't started to reinvent government then but he would have said, 'Vote against all reinventions.'

And, he said, 'Vote against all Republicans.' That was the last word and rather a good bit of advice."

GENE AND I both owned property in Rappahannock County, Virginia, about two hours away. If DC had the population density of Rappahannock, it would have only 2,000 people living in it. I bought the place in the early 1970s from G. Brown Miller, who once told me, "You know, partner, your friend Erbin is a mighty fine fellow." I agreed. "He gave me one of them marijuwana cigarettes the other day." "How'd you like it, Brown?" I asked. "Well, it seems like to me, for a man who's lived on moonshine all your life, it don't do much."

I once went entered the H&J Grocery store and found a group of men drinking coffee, including a fully uniformed and armed game warden holding his coffee in one hand and a copy of Foreign Affairs in the other. It was explained to me that Gene McCarthy had been in earlier.


DESPITE ALL HIS LOSSES in presidential races, his defeat in the 1982 Minnesota senatorial race sometimes appeared to bother him most. And Rappahannock County was partly to blame. It seemed his opponent had depicted McCarthy as a stranger who lived amongst the Virginia gentry and the horsey set. Gene tried to explain the difference between, say, truly horsey Middleburg, Virginia, and Rappahannock - such as the roughness of the latter's terrain and its groundhog holes. Challenged to explain who did live there, "I acknowledged that there were one or two gentlemen in the county and another two or three marginal ones, whose names I refused to give out, and went on to explain that the men of my acquaintance in the county were country lawyers, well diggers, preachers, horse trainers and traders, orchard men, cattle breeders and horse breeders, wood cutters, timber men, a game warden, at least three country store owners, an auctioneer, two filling station operators, the keeper of the hounds, a real estate man who encouraged people to eat rutabagas, a county supervisor, one or two persons suspected of being moonshiners and bootleggers, poachers, a coon hound trainer and hunter, and one suspected of keeping fighting chickens, and a few scattered United Airlines pilots."


GENE ARGUED THAT books without autographed inscriptions were more valuable as they were bought by people who actually wanted to read the book and not just to please a friend.


ON HIS 80TH BIRTHDAY, McCarthy recalled Robert McNamara appearing before a Senate committee:

||| He testified one day, and [Senator] Wayne Morse asked him, "How many tanks are there in Latin America?" And McNamara didn't look it up, didn't ask anybody, and he said "Nine hundred and seventy-four." Wayne said, "That's pretty precise." And then without another question MacNamara said, "That's sixty percent as much as a single country, Bulgaria, has."

I had resolved earlier never to ask him any more questions, but this was too much, and I said I was interested in that answer. And he said, "Well, that's right." I said, "Well, I agree with nine hundred and seventy-four, but why did you tell us it was sixty percent of the number in Bulgaria?" And he said, "Because it is." And I said, "Well, why Bulgaria? Do you, in your world, count tanks relative to Bulgaria?" I said, "Is there a kind of Bulgarian absolute, as far as tanks are concerned?" And he said, "If there were, I would tell you about it."

And I realized then I learned what a true fact was. If you take two things that are not true and juxtapose them, then you've got to believe they're true, because they seem so precise. I mean, nine hundred and seventy-four and sixty percent of Bulgaria: You say, "That must be a true fact." |||


FINALLY IT WAS TIME to go to a retirement home. As Gene had said when he turned 80, he was "beyond the reach of the scriptures" with their lifespan of three score and ten. But he didn't think all that much of his new form of exile. For one thing, there had to be at least three people at each table in the dining hall: "You need one to eat, one to talk, and one to hear." And he learned early not to sit at the same table with Victor Reuther who had developed an endless capacity for describing his near death in an attempted murder while a labor leader. Gene's view of retirement: "I feel like I'm on a cruise ship on the River Styx." And: "The line between assisted living and assisted dying is very thin."


HERE'S ONE OF HIS POEMS he recited on his 80th birthday


He walks even in daylight with his arms outstretched.
Fishlike, he shies at shadows,
his own following him, nose to the ground,
like a blind bloodhound.

Grey mists float through the cavities of his skull,
he feeds the sterile steer, and cows of no desire,
on the mast of bitter grapes.
He shades his eyes against fireflies;
and his own life, which once burned bright,
is now yellow tallow.

His words rise like water twice used from the cistern pumps,
and then go out, in a wavery line, like beagles in search of rabbits.
Like a gull crying with a tired voice, he looks back often into the fog.

Each night he holds his stone head between his hands
while his elbows sink into the tabletop. - EM


THE LAST TIME I saw Gene he was observing his 89th birthday in his apartment with the help of a lobster sent over by the Palm Restaurant. Gene was not able to move or talk much and when he did speak it was almost inaudible. But I listened anyway, fascinated that, even at this sad final stage, the words - though barely comprehensible - still seemed poetic. It was as though he was working on his last verse.


BUT HE HAD already written it:

Now it is certain that there is no magic stone
there is no secret to be found.
One must go with the mind's winnowed learning,
no more than the child's handhold on a willow leaning over the lake
or on a sumac root at the edge of the bluff.

All ignorance is checked, all betrayals scratched.
The coat is hung on the peg, the cigar laid on beveled table's edge,
the cue chosen and chalked, the balls racked for the final break;
all cards have been drawn, all bets called,
the dice warm as blood in the palm shaken for the final cast;
the glove has been thrown on the ground, the last choice of weapons made,
a book for one poem, the poem for a line, a line for a word.

"Broken things are powerful," said Yeats,
but things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is the truest.



SAM SMITH - The memorial service for Gene McCarthy ran a bit long, considering it was a tribute to a man who had once suggested reducing the number of commandments from ten to four. And it was disturbing to see Bill Clinton shamelessly delivering a tribute to a man of integrity, especially one who had once suggested, as a reform, that "we fire all the Rhodes and Oxford scholars and everyone from Arkansas." But then there was also Peter Yarrow singing and the moving memorials and the brass section of the National Symphony and, most of all, the guy sitting next to me in the National Cathedral pew.

With pleasant earnestness he had turned to me before the service and asked, "Tell me, what did he do? He ran for president, didn't he? And was he a senator?"

I was stunned, wondering what had led him to enter the cathedral in the first place, but straight forwardly described McCarthy's experience in 1968.

The man was interested and noted, "I wasn't here then but I just liked the way he stood up for the truth."

A light clicked. "You were in Vietnam," I said.

"Right. It really screwed you up. Every day you thought you were going to die. I'm still screwed up."

During the service, my neighbor made copious notes and took photos with his camera.

At the end of the service, I shook hands and said I had been glad to meet him, adding, "Was it worthwhile?"

He smiled. "It was unforgettable. I feel alive again."


Sam Smith
Americans for Democratic Action National Board
December 15, 1992

[In 1992, Gene McCarthy asked me, as a vice president of Americans for Democratic Action, to put his name into nomination for the organization's endorsement as the Democratic candidate for president. I knew ADA was about to endorse Bill Clinton but I agreed to Gene's request. Here is my speech]

I first became involved in the McCarthy campaign out of friendship. Gene McCarthy called me and asked for my help. I told him I had already contributed to [Tom] Harkin. He said that was all right to help those young fellows. It's hard to argue with an attitude like that.

My initial task was to figure out why the hell he was running again.

I soon discovered that what appeared quixotic only had that aura because of the cynical, perverse, corrupt, trivial and destructive politics of our times. The oddity was not that Gene McCarthy was running but that we thought it odd.

And what precisely did we think was odd?

That he refuses to give up a good fight?

That he is probably the most intelligent candidate?

The wisest?

The one with the longest service to the progressive cause?

The one with the most experience, both foreign and domestic?

The one of most unflinching integrity?

Or that he believes, in the manner of Plutarch, that politics is a lifetime avocation and not an occasional experience of convenience?

No, what was really odd was that these qualities appear to carry so little weight in our political considerations.

In 1948, Gene McCarthy supported national health insurance.

In 1954, he was the only member of Congress willing to debate publicly with Joseph McCarthy.

In 1968, he opposed the Vietnam War.

In 1975, he went to court against our current crazy and corrupt elections system.

So the basic question is: do you want to adopt McCarthy's policies now or -- as we have in the past -- wait another 20 or 25 years?

Is Gene McCarthy serious? No candidate is more serious. But unlike most candidates these days, McCarthy is serious about his politics. Most candidates are only serious about getting themselves elected. Most -- including some who will be extolled this morning -- really only hope to be the misty mirror of our own longings. They are not truly salesmen at all, but consumers -- consumers of our own gullibility.

Much of what you hear from politicians is not policy and ideas, but merely speeches. The other night, at the Irish Times pub, Maurice Rosenblatt explained to me how speeches in Washington are written: first you write the headline, then you write the news release, then you write the speech, then you do the research.

It has been said that Washington is a place where perceptions vie with scenarios to supplant reality. Whether that happens is ultimately, however, not Tom Brokaw's or George Will's choice, but ours.

Each of us has the choice to surrender to the tyranny of perceptions or, as Dylan Thomas put it, rage, rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Part of that choice is before you this morning. I urge you to consider your remaining potential to choose as a gift, a sacred part of what makes you human.

To those who would chide me for the impracticality of nominating the senior statesman of liberalism, I advise you to consider what the great British liberal, G.K. Chesterton, once said: all good politics starts with the ideal.

You work backwards from there. So be pragmatic if you must. Accede to puerile perceptions if there is no other choice. But not -- dear friends -- on the first ballot. On the first ballot, just vote right.

Being in politics is like being a football coach; you have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important.

The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.

Postmodern politicians . . . have not known community, many of them. . . . They are isolated. . . . Many are like the child in the airport, smiling too readily, too soon or too long, bearing a name tag with both a return and a forwarding address.

-Eugene McCarthy