The hubris of Eugene McCarthy

When I arrived in Minnesota in 1981 to become the third dean of the Hamline Law School, I called on Minnesota Associate Supreme Court Justice Larry Yetka. Justice Yetka was very relaxed that afternoon and went out of his way to give me a thorough background briefing on Minnesota law and politics.

His father had been a leader in the old Farmer-Labor Party who had worked with Hubert Humphrey to create today's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Suddenly he asked if I knew why Eugene McCarthy had held such a grudge against Hubert Humphrey.

I replied that, having grown up on the East Coast, I had no idea at all. I had met McCarthy only once, in the spring of 1967.

I had been a senior at Harvard College, and Barney Frank, then staff at the Institute of Politics, later the Kennedy School, had asked me to round up some friends to have lunch with a little-known senator from Minnesota. I did so, and for some reason the poet Robert Lowell showed up on his own. We sat at a table by the window in the Quincy House dinner room overlooking Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

McCarthy and Lowell spent the lunch resonating with each other and more or less ignoring my friends and me. McCarthy was on his way to New Hampshire to smoke out his chances for running against President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War in the 1968 primary. In retrospect, McCarthy dropped some clues as to his intentions, but we did not pick up the scope of his ambition.

I do remember Lowell suddenly responding to McCarthy's musings on what was wrong with America by saying with grim expression, "Evil is the hole in the center of the donut."

That would put evil in the middle of everything, even in the core of our personalities. Kind of an updated version of the Christian conception of sin as the central dynamic of the human experience of angst and disappointment with the cosmos.

Lowell then went silent as if to say that there is no getting away from evil being at the center of things - a permanent black hole sucking in goodness and hope.

This discussion around a table in the dining room of Harvard's Quincy House was in my mind years later as I listed to Justice Yetka introduce me to Minnesota DFL lore.

1964 had been the year when McCarthy's grudge against Humphrey had been triggered - now exactly 50 years ago - and the fault had lain with Lyndon Johnson.

According to Justice Yetka, Johnson was going to pick Hubert Humphrey to be his vice presidential running mate and everyone knew it. But Johnson wanted some surprise to announce at the Democratic Party convention so he played coy with Humphrey and did not confirm his intention with his putative running mate until the last minute.

Worse, Johnson teased McCarthy that he might pick him as a Northern Catholic to balance the party ticket as Johnson was a Southern Protestant in a modified replay of the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson ticket. Johnson slyly dropped hints that McCarthy would be his surprise final choice.

Justice Yetka said McCarthy as a college professor had always looked down on Humphrey intellectually and had long thought that his Senate colleague talked too much and pondered too little.

For whatever reason, McCarthy actually thought he would be Johnson's choice for vice president. So, when Johnson picked Humphrey, McCarthy was bitterly wounded and primed for revenge against both men.

Four years later, the Vietnam War gave him an opportunity for payback.

First he challenged Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Johnson won the primary but was so unnerved by the experience and, apparently, seeing Bobby Kennedy then getting into the race, abandoned his post as a presidential leader of his country and refused to run for re-election.

Second, when Humphrey was nominated as his party's candidate for the presidency, McCarthy took his own sweet time in coming to his support. McCarthy only endorsed Humphrey very close to Election Day 1968.

As the 1968 presidential election was drawing to a close, Humphrey was gaining on Richard Nixon in the polls. Many students of U.S. politics believe that if the election had been held only one week later, Humphrey would have won and there would have been no Nixon presidency.

Think for a second what that would have meant for American history - a different scenario in Vietnam perhaps, most likely no presidential visit with Chairman Mao, maybe no end to the draft, maybe a slower Republican takeover of the white Southern vote, and certainly no Watergate.

Another take on what might have happened in the 1964 election if McCarthy had played his cards more favorably for Humphrey has been that, if McCarthy had come out in support of Humphrey much earlier, Humphrey would have had sufficient momentum building in his appeal that he would have won on Election Day.

So Humphrey loyalists like Justice Yetka blame McCarthy for the Nixon presidency.

In 1968, McCarthy had put something very personal at the center of his politics and had imposed his anger on the American people and set the course of history one way and not another.

"Evil is the hole in the center of the donut," said poet Robert Lowell.

We should always look to the center of our personality and see what moves around in that space. If we let it loose, what will happen?

The ancient Greeks had a different take on Lowell's insight. They called that emptiness "hubris" or putting the self at the center of it all. Hubris evilly causes us to think we are gods and to attempt that which is beyond our just part in creation.

The Greeks, too, invented a counterweight to hubris, which they called nemesis. Once hubris sprung into action, nemesis would come along and punish that excess with suffering and ruin.

Nemesis punished McCarthy's hubris with subsequent marginalization in American politics.

Johnson's hubris, not only in toying with Humphrey and not treating him with dignity but also in other instances of seeking to dominate all around him, was punished by nemesis in many ways.

Today it seems with Leon Panetta's book on his experience with President Barack Obama and with leaks in Washington that the president needs to clean house and replace his too subservient staff, a hubris in our current president arising from his pride in his cool, self-distancing, law-student brilliance has brought forth a nemesis for him as well. His foreign policy seems to be in tatters, he can't find a secretary of defense to his liking, his popular support has eroded across the board, and his own political party seems very out of sorts with him.

As we sow, so shall we reap.

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Stephen B. Young is executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network advocating ethical principles for business and government.

Published: Fri, Dec 12, 2014