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Monday, December 19, 2005

So Long Gene McCarthy

I like the role of iconoclast. I believe that the fundamental difference between an iconoclast and a nihilist is that an iconoclast will suggest a solution, whereas a nihilist is mostly just talk without action.
One of my favorite iconoclasts died this past week. Eugene McCarthy died at the age of 89 years old. He ran for president a total of 5 times, only two of which were serious, and one of those - 1968 - ended up toppling a president and self-immolating the Democratic Party in ways that it still struggles with today.
My role is not as a history teacher, so the story of Eugene McCarthy's ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign is better left to someone who can tell it thoroughly (if it's possible to tell the story of 1968 without a little part of the relator dying inside). In this time of supreme falsehood, where we have a president who feels it necessary to spy on his own citizens to "protect America", I am struck by how few true iconoclasts are left among us under the age of 80. In my lifetime thus far, we've lost Hyman Rickover, Buckminster Fuller, Abbie Hoffman, John Lennon, Frank Zappa and now Eugene McCarthy.
What made McCarthy unique was his penchant for taking on the system from within. As has been the case far too often in history, those that try to reform the system from within usually become political martyrs. Sadly, McCarthy was martyred to a senator from his own state. This may have been the unkindest cut of all in Eugene's political life.
They have already named buildings across the land for Hubert Humphrey. That's what happens to people who happily sacrifice their morality to the system with artifice and bombastic language that is saved in small shreds on a plaque. There will be no stadiums or government office buildings or rotundas for Gene McCarthy. The honest man who fights the good fight in the common tongue and fails never gets a monument. If they did, every bridge in America would be named for Woody Guthrie. What the honest man gets is a historical footnote. The contemporaries who outlive the iconoclast usually can be found shaking their heads in confusion, and yet finding nothing but good things to say about the iconoclast when he or she is brought up in polite conversation.
The path of the iconoclast is a brave one, and history has shown that it's usually the right one, but that is only discovered through the perfect window afforded by the passing of time. Eugene McCarthy died knowing that in the case of the Vietnam War, he had it right. Who among us knew from the very beginning that America's latest misbegotten episode in the Mesopotamian Desert was a mistake? If you know someone, like me, who had it right all along, encourage them and nurture that person. The world is coming apart at the seams. In the times we now live, consisting of such total ineptitude among those who lead, celebrate the iconoclast, for the need for such individuals grows more dire with each passing day.

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