New Politics Requiem
COMPARED to this summer's gala bash at Fenway Park, the McCarthy rally at the Garden last Friday was pretty tame stuff. Naturally there were plenty of good reasons for all the elbow room and the lack of ecstasy over the predictable sloganeering. Gene has been swamped at Chicago, Nixon, the sabre-rattling cop, was heading into the homestretch with a big lead, the Vietnam war seemed ready to take an astonishingly civilized turn, and the Garden in the fall isn't Fenway in midsummer.
Untimely circumstances aside, there was another good reason for the mildness of the affair. A primary issue Kennedy, McCarthy, and McGovern had raised--whether sane, attractive men would run the federal show--had been settled for the time being. Fifteen minutes of Gene was no longer Heaven--especially since it followed interminable harangues by the likes of Richard Goodwin, Shirley MacLaine, and Michael Schwartz. Paul O'Dwyer's charming brogue and John Gilligan's verbal restraint were a bit more encouraging, though the feeling lurked that both were probable losers come November 5.
Gilligan was actually a pretty poignant figure. A red-haired new politician in what had to be a Brooks Brothers pin stripe, he was dog-tired. Standing outside the Celtics' dressing room, he said he was "just praying for good weather and 50,000 college kids on election day." For Gilligan and many others, new politics-or massive student and suburbanite participation--was no mere idealistic indulgence. Ohio's unions, which lavishly sponsored his successful primary run against Sen. Frank Lausche this spring, have ignored his banner since Chicago. Gilligan likes black people and dislikes Dean Rusk, a bit much for the blue-collar barons just now.
In a certain sad sense, Gilligan was in the same quandary as many of the college kids and young adults who came to see him. He had fought a lot of good fights this year, won a few, lost a few, and his own political party turned out to be his toughest opponent. One remembers the two-day stretch at Chicago when he tried to hammer out a peace plank acceptable to the Kennedyites and McCarthyites. After a lot of internecine name-calling, Gilligan, Dick Goodwin, and the Kennedy loyalists finally produced the minority report. The next day it was red-baited by Hubert's spear-chuckers and rejected 3 to 2 by the convention.
That was one event among many which have taken their toll on Gilligan's spirit. Not even to strange reporters did he betray any bounce or enthusiasm. He knew he and his allies are in for a long twilight struggle, win or lose. For 1968's new politics, the McCarthy movement, or whatever, is not destined to purify the Democratic party--or the nation. In coming months, this year's issues would be blurred, old enemies would cross the lines, and freaky opportunists would make their way to the top--as always.
FORTUNATELY, the crowd wasn't in Gilligan's unenviable leadership position. Some of them sat there bored, complaining that the talk was "stale," or "phony." They would cop out when the V.C. did. Others, especially a group of McCarthy's ex-aides, stood near the podium, cheered wildly, made V-signals, and wore "Still With McCarthy" buttons. They were still in Oregon and it was May.
There were a lot of people who came to the Garden to witness a rip-snorting rally, a sort of raucous entertainment. Disappointed, they cursed the food salesmen who told them, "We're not selling beer because too many kids are here." I wondered briefly whether some Wallace-loving municipal bureaucrat was getting subtle revenge on the peace movement. Celtics' games, anyone knows, attract at least as many kids and everybody drinks. But political sanity, it must be supposed, hardly warrants the diversion Bill Russell and the gang do.
Anyway, Gene McCarthy, when he finally came to the podium, made up for the rest of the rally. His trips to the Riviera and the World Series seemed to have done great things for him. His face was finally ruddy, his hair had a luminous silver finish, and his tailor had equipped him with an almost psychedelic baby blue shirt. Finally, the Democrats had a match for Ronald Reagan--as if it matters now.
For once, McCarthy gave a brief, punchy speech. It was primarily aimed at his audience--he talked about the Pied Piper, rats running into the river, Hubert Humphrey's convenient deafness, all the standard lines to arouse those who had fought the good fight and gotten smashed.
His purpose, he said, was to urge support for eleven selected Democratic Senate candidates, all foreign policy rationalists and all in varying kinds of electoral trouble this fall. Almost as a throw-away, McCarthy noted that the Senate would be called upon to take the lead against the progressive "militarization" of our foreign policy. It was McCarthy's most trenchant line, but he didn't elaborate.
His failure to discuss his reasoning spotlighted not only his personal dilemma, but the increasingly touchy position his backers find themselves in as election day approaches. Simply, the next great Senate foreign policy stand will probably have little to do with the conduct of the Vietnam war. It will likely center around America's arms control policy, a policy with grave budgetary implications for federal action to redeem the cities.
ONLY 24 hours before McCarthy's speech, Richard Nixon made his feelings plain: if he had to spend $50 billion, or the equivalent of two years in Vietnam, to attain "clear-cut superiority" over the Russians, by golly, we would do it. Hubert Humphrey, to his credit, believes in strategic parity and in quick, comprehensive, bilateral negotiations to head off another insane arms spiral.
This is one reason many anti-war Democrats are swallowing their pride, abusing their sensibilities, and planning reluctantly to back Hubert. It is probably the main ideological reason McCarthy will soon endorse the Vice President. But to some McCarthy backers, noisily evident Friday, not even the arms control controversy is sufficient reason to back Lyndon's boy, especially after Chicago. Not surprisingly, the loudest cheers at the rally came after McCarthy stuck a satiric rapier in Hubert's invisible back.
Sensitive to the bruised, bitter feelings of his crusaders, McCarthy is caught in a delicate irony partly of his own making. The very cause for McCarthy's brave defiance of Lyndon Johnson last winter--America's idiotic substitution of military hardware for perceptive diplomacy abroad--is now, in a new sense, the most respectable reason for backing Johnson's head cheerleader.
All of which seems to suggest what underlay the general sluggishness Friday night: the political sands have shifted, the summer's enthusiasm has yielded to the fall's agony, and a few months' time has almost made irrelevant the central issue--the Vietnam war--which provoked the new politics in the first place.