The Philosopher King


"...The man who knows the 'good', the philosopher or scientist or scholar, ought to have decisive power in government and it is his knowledge alone which entitles him to this," Plato's Republic.

In many ways Eugene J. McCarthy would make a fitting candidate for the position of "philosopher-king". A scholar, a philosopher, an intellectual, McCarthy has committed himself to high ideals, both political and moral, and has refused to compromise them. On the other hand, he is a pragmatic politician who tries to fulfill these ideals within the existing political system. To carry the analogy of the "unwilling" philosopher-king even further, McCarthy claims' he is not seeking the presidency--that all he wants to do in the '72 presidential Democratic convention is to "help write the platform and pick the candidate." In other words McCarthy asserts he is only "willing" to run for president if no other candidate presents himself.

The image of McCarthy as philosopher-king made him a very attractive candidate to the intellectual community in the '68 presidential race. Here at last was a man who seemed to resolve the paradox of combining idealistic goals with political action; he was the easy way out of facing the conflict between idealism and politics.

In the '68 primary, the liberal and student community flocked enthusiastically to New Hampshire to help McCarthy in his drive to end the war in Vietnam and dump Johnson. With their help he won a major political upset gaining 42.4 per cent of the Democratic vote against LBJ showing just how divided the Democratic Party was over the war issue. McCarthy went on to gather an increasing amount to liberal support--as well as an $11 million dollar campaign fund--to run vigorous campaigns in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and California.

Because of this blind and unrealistic acceptance of McCarthy as the liberal ideal, the disillusionment with the McCarthy image after the Democratic convention was all the more intense. McCarthy refused to support Humphrey until it was too late and--despite his protestations to the contrary--he probably contributed to the Nixon victory. And to further bewilder the liberal constituency McCarthy proceeded to give up his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to a hawk and to support Russell Long against Edward Kennedy for Senate Majority Whip.

It is unclear whether these politically unsound actions resulted from idealism or selfishness, but in either case the liberal community found itself suddenly faced not only with the realization that McCarthy was not the hero they had envisioned, but also with the recognition that there are no clear-cut boundaries between idealistic, selfish, and political actions.

During a cocktail conversation at the Faculty Club, McCarthy--referring to Father Conway's Question Box which used to appear in 1930 Catholic weeklies--said. "The box used to pose questions about Catholicism, life, and God and then answer them with pat, inadequate answers. We used to be stimulated by the questions and then, not accept their answers--this was the downfall of strict Catholicism for us." McCarthy went on to say that, in the same way there are no exact, easy answers in politics. Earlier, in the Signet Society, he had told a group of Harvard students." I offered you no illusions in '68."

McCarthy is once again seeking support for a presidential primary drive. No one--not even McCarthy--knows whether he is actually seeking the nomination for himself. Lawrence O'Brien said a few weeks ago that he did not yet recognize McCarthy as a candidate for the Democratic Party Nomination; and he Gallup poll does not include McCarthy in its standings. Martin Peretz, one of the major contributors in '68 and now again in '72 said in last week's Time magazine that he would not give McCarthy full financial support "until Gene shows the determination to make a hard and serious effort."

Presently McCarthy is organizing non-primary states to influence the delegates in the state conventions. He had announced that his strategy in the '72 presidential campaign will be to form a liberal caucus in several of the major primary states to select a liberal candidate to run in that state: "I would like to stay away from 'head on' contests in the primaries. No one is a strong candidate now. If Lindsay is strong in Oregon, he should run there. If I have a better chance then I will run. If we both run and take 55 percent of the vote in a state it will show that this state is on the whole in favor of our positions, and this is what the national convention should stand for."

McCarthy stresses he is content to work within the two party system although he adds. "The Convention is the best real commitment to the Democratic principles, but we must approach it with reservation as well as commitment." When asked if we would run for a fourth party, he responded: "I would consider it, although I would not necessarily join. If there is one, and if I don't "support the Democratic Party nominee, I may get involved." Just last week--when approached by the People's Party in Dallas, Texas--McCarthy said he would accept their nomination as an endorsement but he was still primarily interested in the Democratic National Convention.

Since he is far from a favorite candidate among party regulars, McCarthy's only hope for power in the '72 presidential race lies in the primaries. He will face different campaign difficulties than in the '68 New Hampshire race when he was unique in his opposition to Johnson and the war; in the '72 race there are a plethora of candidates with similar platforms and constituencies. The only major difference between McCarthy and the others is his refusal to back any party nominee who does not live up to his "severe standards." He made a sound political decision not to run in New Hampshire this year, since, with McGovern, Muskie and McCloskey all competing for the same vote, any showing for McCarthy would pale next to his '68 political coup. But all the liberal candidates will face this problem in the major primary states. Perhaps it is this realization which encouraged both McCarthy and McGovern (who has 4 per cent national support in the polls) to talk about a liberal caucus.

The possibilities of forming a liberal caucus seem to be slight, as part experience has shown. In the '68 race Robert Kennedy and McCarthy both at first claimed that they would not work against each other in the primaries, since they both supported a similar cause; RFK was even generous enough to support McCarthy in the Massachusetts Primary when he was too late to sign up for himself. However, in California when McCarthy and Kennedy ran against each other a bitter personal battle ensued, so bitter that after Kennedy's assassination most of his campaign workers chose to work for McGovern rather than for the more obvious choice of McCarthy.

Although the liberal candidates are stressing "issues" rather than personality, it is personality which is bound to play the decisive role since the issue stands are so similar. Personality is certainly McCarthy's strong point in the intellectual community. As far as issues go. McGovern is the stronger candidate; his greatest liability is his personality which is less than exciting.

McCarthy makes his best showing in small groups. At the Signer Society sitting on the arm of a chair and dressed in a comfortable looking V. necked sweater, he won over a group of alienated, slightly hostile students so that by the end of the meeting the majority of people signed up as "interested" in his campaign. Far from a politician in his looks or actions, McCarthy appears lowkeyed in front of large audiences. His speech at the Harvard Law Forum, more like a lecture about the systems of law than a political speech, failed to inspire any of the interest his Signet Society talk engendered.

The future of McCarthy in the '72 presidential drive is still uncertain. By this time in '68 he had already announced his candidacy in the New Hampshire primary. His success and influence will depend on his ability to overcome the disllusionment of '68 and to once again gather liberal support. His dream of a liberal caucus seems doubtful since individual aspirations are likely to disrupt a conciliation on issues.

It seems unlikely that the philosopher-king image to McCarthy will draw the same support as it did in the '68 primaries. In any case, his role as philosopher-king will provide a necessary balance to the opportunism of national politics. The outcome of the race for Democratic Party nominee will ultimately depend on the liberal community's decision as to whether McCarthy the philosopher-king will succeed as McCarthy the president.