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They say you never forget your first love. I guess that goes for politics as well as romance.

Jerome Christenson

Jerome Christenson

I suppose love isn’t quite the right word. I don’t look back on Gene McCarthy with the same stomach-lightening pitter-patter I get when ... well, I won’t embarrass her here ... comes to mind, but there’s something about your first.

I can’t say exactly when it was — 1962 or ’63 I should think, though I could be off by a year either way. In any case it was a chill early morning, a Sunday, because I got trundled off to Sunday school, albeit late, after the proceedings adjourned. It was a breakfast meeting of 20 or so local men of importance, no women that I can recall and certainly, other than me, no kids. The guest of honor was a guy I really hadn’t heard of and had no clear notion of exactly what it was he did that made it worth passing up Mom’s breakfast for rubber eggs and congealed bacon around a big table in the elementary school cafeteria. But Dad thought I should go, Mom assented and there in my best suit with my best manners I sat and did my best to pay attention to the tall, gray man at the head of the table talking in a soft voice concerning matters I had no concern for whatsoever.

I got through the meal without spilling on myself and realized that whatever it was the senator was talking about was a lot more interesting than the day’s Sunday school lesson — heck, he even told a joke or two, something I’d never hear in the church basement. Then afterward, as the dark-suited worthies stood, took a last swig of coffee and lit up a fresh smoke, U.S. Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy made his way around the table, through that forest of knees and crotches to squat down to the level of a sawed-off little boy, look him in the eye, shake his hand and speak to him with the same words and equal regard he gave the grown-ups making their way toward the exit.

He even knew my name.

For more than five decades, the moment has stayed with me.

The memory was still fresh in 1964 when I sported a big blue and white “McCarthy for Senate” button right next to the pin proclaiming “All the Way with LBJ!” I remember the thrill I got from the Life magazine cover speculating on which of Minnesota’s senators Lyndon might choose to be the country’s next vice president — and was not a little disappointed that my guy didn’t get the nod.

He was still my guy, and even more so, four years later. Tet had given reason to believe that the light at the end of the tunnel appeared dimmer by the day as a war that had once seemed so distant came ever closer with each draft call and casualty count. A few months earlier McCarthy had announced he was running for president — although from the initial intensity of the effort, strolling was probably a more apt description. It was greeted as the most quixotic campaign announcement ever — at least until another unlikely individual descended a gilded escalator nearly a half-century later — with results that would prove only slightly more astounding.

But could there be a greater contrast? One a poet, theologian and philosopher; the other a reality TV star quoting a “Two Corinthians” it’s doubtful he’d ever opened. One a scholar speaking truth to power; the other a showman disregarding truth in pursuit of power.

One is the president; the other an also-ran.

But 50 years ago this week, Gene McCarthy shook the world and sent history spinning off in directions unforeseeable to the troops of Baby Boomers gone “Clean for Gene” in the snows of New Hampshire. A year later Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would be cold in their graves and we’d have Richard Nixon to kick around again for six more years. Americans would be on the moon in a matter of months, and continue to die in Vietnam — more than 21,000 of us — for years to come. Just out of sight was a Ford, not a Lincoln, Wee Jimmy, Reaganomics, Slick Willy, a thicket of Bushes and a crazy search for a presidential birth certificate.

And here, caught up in the unlikely end of it all, are we.

Where is Gene McCarthy when we really need him?

Jerome Christenson is a former reporter, columnist and editor at the Winona Daily News.


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