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Sunday, December 11, 2005

THE SOUL OF A CONTRARIAN 

The Strib's obituary for Eugene McCarthy this morning is long but worth reading. I must confess that, as one still this side of 40 (barely), my familiarity with McCarthy's career had always been a bit sketchy. I knew that he was a fellow Johnnie and a Democratic Congressman and then Senator from Minnesota who launched a short-lived but galvanizing bid for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination before drifting away from politics to write poetry. And that was about it.

But the obituary revealed him to me as a refreshingly complicated and entertainingly cantankerous figure. On the one hand, he was a lifelong Democrat who was an early architect of the Minnesota DFL, whose opposition to the Vietnam War looks rather pie-eyed in retrospect, and who seemed far too suspicious of free-market capitalism. On the other hand, he detested both the Kennedys and Warren Burger, took swipes at Jimmy Carter's "poetry," said of Walter Mondale that he had "the soul of a vice president," and endorsed Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. Is there a single Democrat on the national stage today whom one could imagine taking a comparable range of views, or of expressing them as sharply? Perhaps a melding of Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller would come close. Still, there would be something missing. For one, it's hard to imagine Lieberman or Miller--or any politician today--quipping that "Politics is like football. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, but not smart enough to lose interest."

The degree of self-aware detatchment from politics evidenced by that line is rare among politicians--and not surprisingly, since it hardly seems compatible with the will to engage in the kind of cutthroat Machiavellianism that is required for real success in politics, in this era or any other. (Insofar as it equates loss of interest in politics with superior intelligence, it also smacks of self-praise, as McCarthy himself must have known when he said it.)

I can't help noticing at least some similarity with another politician whose bid for the White House famously failed in the 1960s: Barry Goldwater. They started from opposite ideological poles and antagonistic parties, but over time their contrarianism seemed to push them toward idiosyncratic spots in a sparsely populated middle region from which they might have been just close enough to shake hands.

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