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The long view

It is too late of course to offer voters new tools for discernment but since we have made our choice we could do worse over the next few years than attend less to political pundits and more to our leader’s language, philosophy of life and religion. In Washington DC recently, I met the retired Senator Eugene McCarthy, ex-Benedictine, who suggested this analytical tool, since all these elements bear on politics. First of all, he said, analyse their grammar. Inevitably, politicians so wear out a part of speech that they assumed its character. Bill Clinton, he had concluded, was a gerund, but only Latin scholars would find that a
useful insight.

Senator McCarthy forbore to analyse either George W. Bush or John Kerry, harking back instead to the campaigns of the ‘70s and the adverbial Jimmy Carter. George McGovern was an adjective, being a Methodist and not much given to emotion. Come to think of it, (the adjectival?) John Howard comes from a Methodist background and George W. Bush is also Methodist, although these days he runs with para-church evangelicals and Southern Baptists. How should we parse Mark Latham?

According to Senator McCarthy’s system, a candidate’s philosophy of life is judged on his views about creationism versus evolution. On this basis, Ronald Reagan emerged as the least risky option for President, over and against Jimmy Carter and independent John Anderson. ‘Anderson said he believed in both of them. Jimmy not only believed in it, he said he could do it. He said, “I will evolve a foreign policy”. Ronald said he believed in creationism pure and simple. And I said, “I think you have to go with Ronald because nothing evolved in a four-year term anyway”. It’s not enough time. But you could have a revolution in four years so Ronald would be a better president because he was working in a proper time frame.’

Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s claims for his ‘born-again’ status are modest compared to the mini-dramas recounted by Carter and Anderson. Reagan could not remember just when it happened exactly or what it did to him. That was reassuring compared to Jimmy Carter’s experience in the woods, with his sister, after an earlier electoral defeat and John Anderson’s rebirth at the age of 12, which was somehow connected to the beheading of John the Baptist. Anderson described it, said Eugene McCarthy, as ‘a catastrophic experience’.

McCarthy himself was only the second Catholic senator from Minnesota in its 150-year history. (The first is best known for having challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel.) At the age of 88 he lives in Washington DC and maintains his rage about the institutionalisation of the two-party system. Recently published
biographies canvass his role as an independent and an anti-war candidate in 1968 in the campaign that saw Richard Nixon defeat Hubert Humphrey.

Back in 1960, Senator McCarthy was the Democrat enlisted by John F. Kennedy to go about the campuses and appear on the TV shows explaining that Catholics were alright. Two issues invariably came up at universities: would a Catholic president stop US aid for birth control information in India, and would he also send an ambassador to the Vatican? McCarthy’s response was that he recommended that Kennedy provide funds for equipping all the sacred cows with intra-uterine devices, and that there were 20 or 25 places exerting power over the United States where an ambassador would be useful: the Pentagon, General Motors, ITT and First Boston, for example. ‘I kind of left it at that!’

John Kennedy’s landmark speech in 1960 to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Houston is still quoted in debates about the relationship between a candidate’s religious faith and his political life. ‘It was pretty much the standard Catholic line you know—I’m a Catholic but I’m an American politician and I can make the distinctions.’ (The discussion this year, with John Kerry’s candidacy, has been about the kind of distinctions Catholic candidates are obliged to make.) Senator McCarthy said, ‘I didn’t think it was a great betrayal. I just had some doubts about whether he should have done it. You know, sort of a concession to one religion saying, “I’m going to come down and explain myself to you”. He could have said, you know what my stand is, you know who I am, I don’t have anything to confess.’

Margaret Coffey makes programs for Encounter, ABC Radio National.



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