Thursday, October 19, 2006

Failing Nobly

Thinking about politics made me think about "Clean Gene" Eugene McCarthy, and the campaign of 1968, one I remember only vaguely. I paid more attention 4 years later, when McGovern ran against Nixon, though I was still too young to vote that time, either. But my memory of McCarthy was that he ran against the war knowing he didn't have a chance. Quite a difference from politics as practiced today.

McCarthy ran hoping to force settlement negotiations. He ran against Johnson, the incumbent, and surprised everyone by pulling 42% to Johnson's 49% in New Hampshire, largely due to student volunteers (who had a motivation; the war was beginning to churn through their ranks). But then Robert Kennedy entered the race, and was assasinated, which caused many Kennedy supporters to switch to McGovern. And, of course, the Democrats held their convention in Chicago, with the infamous "police riot" between demonstrators, Chicago police, and the Illinois National Guard. By the time of the convention, McCarthy only had 23% of the delegates.

4 years later, McGovern, also on a platform opposing the war, carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. If you were old enough then, you remember that. I certainly do.

But three years after McGovern's loss, the US was out of Vietnam. Because of McCarthy and McGovern? No; not directly. In spite of them? No; clearly, not at all. What does this tell us about the present day?

Politics today, more than ever, is about power. It's easy enough to be cynical, to say that's all it's ever been about; but that isn't quite true. It would take a Candide to insist politics is never about power, but a Machiavelli to insist it is always and only about nothing more. Except today, the pendulum has swung very much in one direction. Indeed, it seems to be hanging at one end of its arc, no longer free to swing back the other way. Gene McCarthy didn't run because he could win. He ran to oppose the Vietnam War, to try to make a difference as a politician. George McGovern lost in one of the most singular defeats in American politics, but his opponent resigned in disgrace two years later, largely over what he did in his campaign against McGovern, and the war McGovern wanted to end left us with the indelible image of a US helicopter taking off as frantic Vietnamese try to cling to its runners.

Why don't we have such politicians today? Partly because of the passions unleashed by the '60's, but that release of powerful emotions was inevitable. Partly due to the campaigns of McCarthy and McGovern, and the changes in Presidential nominations they wrought. Ironically I think the very evil those changes were meant to prevent, the unpalatable national candidate, have returned in the full primary system. John Kerry won in the early primaries because voters were convinced he could win against George W. Bush. They didn't vote for the right candidate, but for the most electable one, precisely the standard of the "smoke-filled rooms." Shortly thereafter Kerry's nomination was a fait accompli, the money all flowed toward him, no other candidates need apply, and the result is the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Imagine what might have happened if a politician more concerned with principle than with power had spoken up by now.

And partly, of course, simply because of the ideology of the GOP; an ideology traced back at least to the Goldwater campaign of 1964. But this is the problem with power and politics. Even if you say you want it because you will wield it rightly, who is to say you are right? What is to keep their ideology from prompting your own? It's a concept some mock, but that's a serious question (albeit seldom handled seriously in the public discourse). Where is the concept of the noble failure? Where, among Christians, is the concept of the Crucified God? A new "mock bible" has been published to highlight just how much Christians have co-opted their beliefs in order to be very comfortable in the world. What about the central image of our faith, the crucified Lord? It was the failure of Jesus on the cross that Paul proclaimed the wisdom of God, and he denounced everything and said he gave up everything in order to be closer to Christ in all things.

And we complain because the political parties don't listen to us. We complain because we don't have enough political power. What could be more Christian than the noble failure? What could be more appropriate than to demand, not that politicians give us a place at the table, but that they abandon the table altogether? We complain that "they" have shifted the discourse so far in their favor that "we" must shift it back before we can even consider negotiation. What if we just insisted on what is right, and lived our lives in that example? Seems to me "Clean Gene" McCarthy did that much. He was a politician, and he used his skills to change the direction of the nation. He failed; but he failed better than most of us have.

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