Eugene McCarthy died at the age of 89 in December. He was born a farmer’s son in far-flung Watkins, Minnesota, not the typical urban Irish Catholic of his generation who went into politics. But McCarthy’s Irishness was central to his identity, as is evident in his writings as well as the issues about which he was passionate.
McCarthy struck those who knew him as a scholar, and he was indeed remembered not just as a congressman and senator, but also as a poet and essayist, who proudly claimed that he wrote in the “Irish mystic” tradition of Yeats. He also wrote at length about Ireland’s place in the 21st-century world, musing about the downside of the Celtic Tiger, and the strained relationship between the U.S. and Ireland.
But, of course, McCarthy was best remembered for challenging Lyndon Johnson in 1968, when the Vietnam War was spinning out of control. McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary (he actually lost) convinced Johnson that he could not win reelection to the White House. McCarthy — love him or hate him for it — galvanized the anti-Vietnam crowd. Many critics saw him as a peacenik, the kind of dove who was, in fact, responsible for the quagmire that was Vietnam.
But to his followers, McCarthy was articulating a very necessary critique at a critical time. It should be added that McCarthy’s view fit neatly into the mold of other Irish Catholic liberal radicals such as the Berrigan brothers.
McCarthy’s scholarly ways, however, rubbed even fellow Irish Catholic Democrats the wrong way.
“Gene McCarthy felt he should have been the first Catholic president just because he knew more St. Thomas Aquinas than my brother,” Bobby Kennedy once said.
But Vietnam was not the only nation McCarthy was concerned about.
In 1985, 15 years after he retired, McCarthy appeared before a Senate committee to speak out against a treaty between the U.S. and England which would have made it easy for the U.S. to extradite supposed IRA terrorists.
Sure McCarthy was unabashedly liberal. He was an icon of Irish America. ♦