There'll be many tributes to Richard Pryor online, the ground-breaking comedian who died yesterday at age 65. I'll be looking for words about Eugene McCarthy: former Senator from Minnesota, staunch opponent of the war in Vietnam, thorn in the side of go-along Democrats, sharp-tongued wit, reciter of poetry, lover of baseball, good man. McCarthy died yesterday, 89 years old.
When I was growing up, McCarthy was an icon in my home, until he did the unforgivable. McCarthy opposed Lyndon Johnson on an anti-war ticket ("dove" in the lingo of the times), split the Democrat vote and ushered Nixon into the White House. Nixon kept the war going for another five years. Of course, Johnson had continually escalated the war in Vietnam, and wasn't planning a withdrawal. But liberal Democrats like my father forever blamed McCarthy for Nixon's 1968 election.
Thus Gene McCarthy's unintended legacies are the Democrats' fear and dread of the third-party leftist who might siphon off progressive voters, and liberal Americans' staunch belief that they must vote Democrat, no matter what. I grew up hearing that "a vote for [third-party candidate] is a vote for [Republican candidate]". And that, boys and girls, is how we let the Democrats take their long march to the right.
The "McCarthy gave us Nixon" equation is overly simplistic and might be blatantly wrong. (This review of a book about McCarthy in The Nation demolishes a few persistent myths.) But it influenced the way generations of liberal Americans voted.
Here is the New York Times obituary. Expect tributes from people like Russ Feingold, who carries Gene McCarthy's torch.