Saturday, December 10, 2005

Senator McCarthy died today.

I was a senior in high school when he tried to win the democratic nomination for President of the United States. Lyndon Johnson was about to run for a second term, and he was pretty much commanding the Vietnam War like Bush is today. Only at that time, there were 3 times as many troops in Vietnam as are in Iraq now, and hundreds of GI’s were being killed every month. The economy was in great shape and other than this huge problem of war in Southeast Asia, which Americans didn’t understand at all, things were going well for America.

McCarthy was the champion of those of us who saw the Vietnam debacle as a mistake and as a disaster. As the senator from Minnesota got his word out, his followers became multitudes. Johnny Carson had politicians on his show periodically, and Gene McCarthy was making enough noise that he earned a venue on that late night staple of the day, “The Tonight Show.”

My dad’s stepfather’s brother (following so far?) was the head of Sherry-Lehman Wines in New York, Sam Aaron. I never knew the guy, but Charlie, my dad’s stepdad, always said if I ever needed tickets for the Tonight Show in New York, Sam would get them for me. Today, if you want tickets to see Jay Leno in Burbank on the “Tonight Show,” you write a few weeks in advance and you wait in line all afternoon and you get in—my family has done that.

In the 1960’s, a ticket to Johnny Carson’s show was not to be had—you had to write in a year or more in advance, and waiting in line at Rockefeller Center to go to the 61st floor studio in a crowded elevator…for free, you get what you get.

I found out that Eugene McCarthy was going to be on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in a week, so I called Charlie, who called Sam, and I got my 2 seats and drove to Manhattan from Hartford—3 hours in traffic—and saw my anti-Vietnam War hero tell his tale. For those of us willing to stay up past 11:30 at night, they would see the tape of the show on TV.

He’s still my hero. When Bobby Kennedy finally hitched his campaign wagon to the anti-Vietnam War movement because the handwriting was on the wall, and McCarthy was already embarrassing the hell out of Johnson, the incumbent, McCarthy wouldn’t give in and bow to Kennedy’s campaign. He should have, for the sake of the cause, but he had worked so hard and so long to get out his message, and Kennedy was co-opting that message with his celebrity-candidacy, and McCarthy’s ego wouldn’t cave. Well, no-one’s perfect.

The memories of McCarthy and his campaign seem like yesterday to me. His passing reminds us of his great work, and how much it applies to the events of our time right now.

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