They say the '76 campaign was the campaign of symbols. Carter, of course, was (and is) the master of the that game, as the folks out in Clinton, Mass. must realize by now. Carter people griped that the press refused to treat the campaign on any but a symbolic level--hence the long, analytical pieces on Miss Lillian's fish pond and brother Billy's proclivity for Budweiser. But Carter himself has a good flair for showmanship, and he exploited the public attention to imagery for all it was worthy--the solar heated (supposedly) inaugural podium is one example. Nor was Carter alone in his attention to symbols. Jerry Brown promised early in his campaign to remove, if elected, all of the presidential portraits in every federal office in Washington, a promise that undoubtedly would have cost more in labor than it would have saved.
But the symbol par excellence of last fall's battle was Gene McCarthy, whose campaign began and ended as no more than a symbol. Perhaps Gene thought he could win. Perhaps he really thought, as his campaign manager once predicted, that he could win the big urban states and so take the electoral vote without the popular. Perhaps he really believed he could win states like Illionois without winning a single Congressional district--by running a very strong second to Daley-backed Carter in Chicago and then running an equally strong second to Ford in rural Illinois.
But if he really believed all this, he didn't act that way. He rarely left his Wisconsin home during the campaign, prefering "grass roots organizing" to slick whistlestop blitzes--or perhaps just prefering to save his money. His campaign promises waxed even more rhetorical than did those of the major party candidates--one idea he put forth in an interview was to dig up the White House rose garden and replace it with basic vegetables, plants he thought would better befit his less-than-imperial presidency. His economic ideas seemed just as obviously designed for that air of out-of-step impossibility mixed with seriousness that catches the camera's eye. Instead of calling for massive public works projects like Fred Harris and the other leftist candidates, McCarthy sounded almost Repulbican when he said we should forego government intervention and simply share more evenly the existing jobs--perhaps by shortening the work week to 35 hours.
When I think of Eugene McCarthy I think of symbols, I think of a pathetic Man of La Mancha crusader who holds his head high even while the crowds throw tomatoes. At the same time, I get the feeling, since we are in the age of symbols, that McCarthy will make his imprint on the real world. They tell this story about Norman Thomas, who like McCarthy, spent most of his middle years running for president as the candidate of the Socialist Party. He gave a speech, after declining the Socialist's nomination to be their candidate for what must have been the fifth or sixth time. He stood up in front of a gathering of young radicals and read a platform that most probably took as either a joke or a sign that the old guy had finally given in to the establishment. When he had finished reading the mild platform (affirming a commitment to a mandatory national pension plan and a government effort to reach full employment, among other things), he stopped, paused, and explained what he had just read. It was the Socialist Party's platform from his first campaign, back during the Depression. The reason the platform had sounded so anti-revolutionary was that in the three decades since that time every plank had become law.
Symbol or not, Clean Gene ran a real campaign last fall. He got on the ballot in most states and garnered more than a million dissatisfied voters to his cause. For Carter, who would have lost the election but for a 20,000 vote margin in Ohio and Hawaii, he was all too real.
But real campaigns cost money, and the Last I read McCarthy was over $200,000 in debt. The Institute of Politics will give him $500 plus travelling expenses to come to Cambridge this week and speak to some students. McCarthy lectures to the public at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 22 in Science Center B.) He may be coming because he likes students (he ought to); he may be coming to pay off his back debt; or he may be coming to get a jump on the 1980 campaign.