Eugene McCarthy, R.I.P.  When famous people die, they are usually overpraised in fulsome superlatives, well meant but losing all proportion.  I’ve complained about this before, and I try to resist the temptation.  I’ll try to resist it today; it won’t be easy but respect for the man himself forbids exaggeration of his virtues.  He wouldn’t have welcomed compliments he didn’t deserve; I’m not sure he relished even the ones he did deserve.

I barely knew of Gene McCarthy until he created a sensation by challenging Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire; he lost, but his strong showing against a sitting president stunned the country and caused Johnson to withdraw from the race a couple of weeks later.

McCarthy’s theme was simple: The Vietnam War was a mistake.  Suddenly, the antiwar movement had a major candidate, a liberal with an attractively conservative demeanor.  Shaggy college students, getting “clean for Gene,” got haircuts—hair was a big cultural issue in 1968—and adopted middle-class camouflage, including even neckties, in order to serve his cause among ordinary voters.  “Working within the System,” it was called.  Opposition to the war no longer seemed subversive or radical.

No sooner had McCarthy shocked Johnson than Bobby Kennedy was emboldened to jump into the race; he and Johnson hated each other anyway.  McCarthy regarded them both with cool contempt, but that was his problem: His cool, aloof personality wasn’t to everyone’s taste.  Bobby had star power inherited from his assassinated brother, plus lots of money, with no inhibiting scruples.  He pretty much muscled McCarthy out of the race, and it looked as if the contest for the nomination would be a duel between him and Hubert Humphrey.

Kennedy crushed McCarthy in the California primary, delivered his short victory speech, and went backstage, where Sirhan Sirhan was waiting for him.  When Kennedy died early the next day, Humphrey’s nomination was assured.  In November, Richard Nixon narrowly beat him in a three-way race, George Wallace taking a fat chunk of the vote, while McCarthy seemed not to care who won.  By 1980, he was favoring Ronald Reagan and heading in a libertarian direction.

I met McCarthy briefly in Minneapolis about that time and told him how much I’d admired him in 1968, something he no doubt heard thousands of times for the rest of his life.  When I told him I was now writing for Bill Buckley’s National Review, he smiled: “I’ve always thought Bill was playing poker with Monopoly money.”  It was the kind of gently barbed, slightly enigmatic witticism you’d expect from him.

I met him again in Baton Rouge a few years later, where I was supposed to debate him; but the debate turned into an all-out tribute from the moment he was introduced.  Everyone remembered him as the hero of 1968.  I could only join the roar of the crowd.

Earlier that day, he’d invited me to join him for breakfast, where we had a long conversation about that wonderful year.  He recalled the dirty tricks of the Kennedy people; on the day of the California primary, they’d tried to scare voters with leaflets claiming he had a plan to bus blacks from Watts to Orange County.  It was a preposterous lie, but there had been no time to rebut it.  Bobby was even more cynical than I’d always thought!  So much for Camelot.  But that night he was murdered anyway, and McCarthy told me the story not with bitterness, but with something like amusement, ironic and philosophical.  No wonder he’d gotten out of politics after his moment of glory.

Politics, I reflected, was a strange business for a man like Gene McCarthy to have been in at all.  George Will has written of his “condescension” to the public, but I think his appeal was just the opposite of that: He never talked down to you, whether you were part of a cheering crowd or a companion at the breakfast table.  He was that rare thing, a politician without bombast.  After an hour with a man like that, you realize how inflated John McCain’s “straight talk” really is.

So in Gene McCarthy’s honor, I think it is enough to say that he spoke with intelligence and candor, he raised our expectations of politicians, and, once upon a time, he was there when we really needed him.  No hyperbole is necessary.  He is gone now, and it hurts.