Gene McCarthy, R.I.P.

A brilliant man who left an awful legacy.

Gene McCarthy died yesterday. He was a man of insight, dedication, wit, and soaring eloquence. (I heard him at a campaign rally when I was seventeen, and I have never heard a better speaker; in my experience, Noam Chomsky, Andreas Papandreou, and Cesar Chavez were comparably compelling,)

McCarthy’s major political accomplishment was the election of Richard M. Nixon to the Presidency, and thus, among other disasters, the prolongation of the War in Vietnam and its expansion into Cambodia, along with the ascendancy of the Strom Thurmond wing of the Republican Party and the eventual replacement of Earl Warren by William Rehnquist. For a man whose two primary political commitments were advocacy of civil rights and opposition to the war, that’s a sad epitaph, but it’s the truth.

And McCarthy was much too smart not to have known precisely what he was doing. Hubris is a terrible affliction.

Clarification: I didn’t mean to criticize McCarthy for running. There’s a case to be made that he should have dropped out of the race to give RFK a clear shot at Humphrey, but I wouldn’t press that point too hard. What I found unforgivable was McCarthy’s refusal to support Humphrey once he’d been nominated, which could only result in Nixon’s election. Humphrey, let’s recall, was closing fast, but had to cancel his TV spots in the last week because he ran out of money. McCarthy made a big charade of endorsing Muskie for Vice-President, emphasizing his refusal to support Humphrey and thus encouraging his troops to stay home.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: