A man of his times

Remembering Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the man who campaigned against war

By Lionel Rolfe 12/22/2005

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The year was 1968 and I was in San Francisco. My hero and mentor, Scott Newhall, longtime editor of the Chronicle, was engaged in a quixotic effort to run for mayor of Baghdad by the Bay. We rented a truck and went around the city with a loudspeaker. Scott especially insisted on stopping outside the office of the Chronicle and directing some well pointed comments at the newspaper he had saved from oblivion.

Later in the evening, somehow I ended up at a fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota who was running for president against Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam.

There weren’t terribly many people there — it was billed as a fundraiser for McCarthy. If you donated a certain amount of money, you could go up talk with the candidate.

I went up to the candidate and told him my godfather was Jerry Baron, who four years before had run for Congress against the Republican incumbent in Monterey County, a fellow named Burt Talcott. I told McCarthy that Jerry always used to talk about him. Jerry said he knew McCarthy pretty well.

“Was that true?” I asked, with a nervous laugh.

McCarthy nodded and began to tell me Jerry stories. Everyone who knew Jerry knew Jerry stories. Jerry, after all, was a guy who knew “Finnegan’s Wake” backwards and forwards, and when he got drunk, which was often, he would prove it by narrating from “Finnegan’s Wake” or “Ulysses.”

McCarthy said that, indeed, he had come out to Monterey County to help Jerry campaign.

He said he remembered one moment when they were flying in a small plane over Carmel, admiring its beauty, and McCarthy told me how he had said to Jerry, “Why would anyone want to leave this and come to Washington, DC.” Both of them remembered the words exactly the same.

Not that there was much of a chance. Jerry did not upset the incumbent, a Republican who had held the seat for more years than anyone could remember.

Although Carmel was an artsy-fartsy place, the rest of Monterey County was cow county, controlled by reactionary bankers and ranchers. Only a Republican could get elected to Congress from Monterey County.
McCarthy went on and on. I looked around and said, “Listen, if there are some money bags you want to talk to, please don’t let me keep you from that.”

He nodded, but kept on talking just to me. Intimately, intently. His Jerry Baron memories were mesmerizing, to him and to me.

We talked about an hour before some aide came along and gently led the senator away from me and toward more probable prey.

McCarthy was a legend of Minnesota and American politics. He was an important and early anti-Vietnam War figure. But it was obvious he was not going to ever become president.

America didn’t deserve someone with brains and poetry in his soul for such a job and that, sad to say, has become even more true today. 

Lionel Rolfe is the author of “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” and “Literary L.A.”

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