Though it did not end the war, that brave, principled candidacy remains a telling event in the history of American politics. It legitimized challenges to incumbent presidents, and its aftershocks have altered the way presidential candidates are nominated, putting that power in the hands of the political descendants of the backers of McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy who felt that professional politicians had thwarted the will of the people of the Democratic Party by ultimately nominating Hubert H. Humphrey.

But McCarthy himself became a bad joke, only quarter-heartedly supporting Humphrey, his old mentor, in 1968 when he could have helped him win. The war probably lasted longer under Richard Nixon than it would have under a liberated Humphrey. Then McCarthy almost derailed the candidacy of Jimmy Carter in 1976 with an independent campaign that was only thwarted by New York State’s wretched ballot-access laws. He also ran for president in 1972, 1988, and 1992, in the meantime endorsing Ronald Reagan in 1980 and losing a Senate primary in 1982.

But this election year, you cannot read Dominic Sandbrook’s careful biography, Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism, without thinking of Ralph Nader.

Not so much in the years leading up to their major political moments, though Nader’s own acetic personal life has a distant parallel to McCarthy’s years as a Benedictine novitiate. But in the years that followed, they share a sky-scraping, grandiloquent self-importance that argues against everything they stood for before they became infatuated with the presidency, the bloviated notion that their own ideas are so perfect, so far above anyone else’s, that in comparison there really is no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans. McCarthy’s diffidence helped give the nation President Nixon, just as Nader’s self-absorption opened the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for George W. Bush and now bids to keep him in residence.

Sandbrook’s biography is most illuminating in the early chapters, as he narrates and explains the religious faith that McCarthy drew from the Benedictines and from wide reading in Protestant theology. Social activism was a major field at St. John’s College in Collegeville, Minn., where McCarthy studied, and Sandbrook lucidly explains McCarthy’s sense of a Christian vocation in politics. He writes, “One of the consequences of McCarthy’s Catholic education was that he retained both his suspicion of the modern secular world, and his commitment to rebuild it on explicitly Christian lines.”

But in the political career that began in 1948, he hardly ever did anything to rebuild that world. He won high scores from Americans for Democratic Action, but except for a brief effort in the House to do something for imported Mexican farm laborers, his 10 years as a representative from St. Paul left only one lasting monument: He was a founder of the Democratic Study Group, an organization that pushed liberal efforts in the House until the Republican rule changes in 1995 swept it away.

“It was in the mid-1950’s,” Sandbrook writes, “that McCarthy’s reputation as a better congressman for columnists than for the people of St. Paul began to take hold. His contributions to House debate wittily lampooned the misfortunes of Eisenhower’s cabinet of mediocrities.” But, as his Senate friend Phil Hart said years later, “Out of a hundred liberals, Gene would be ninety-ninth on my list. He is not worth a damn. I’m the civil rights activist and I know these have been miserable fights. They took work. They took commitment. I never saw McCarthy from one end of the month to the next.” Hart may not have seen McCarthy in the trenches. But reporters saw him–he was always first out of a closed hearing to the microphones outside, breezily dismissing the testimony as farce.

Sandbrook has a hard time with the question of whether McCarthy was lazy, which was certainly the impression held by those of us who covered him in the Senate. At one point, the author says, “The problem was not that McCarthy was lazy, because he was not lazy at all. The problem was that he cultivated the appearance of laziness, aloofness and unconcern.” But in the end, Sandbrook concludes that McCarthy did not have a great impact on the nation “not because of a lack of aptitude, but because of a failure of application.” He says the promise of the young McCarthy “was thrown away through a combination of misplaced pride and unrelenting jealousy” toward Humphrey, and most of all, the Kennedys.

As the author readily concedes, he sheds little new light on the 1968 campaign itself. But he does offer an intriguing explanation for the sober style McCarthy used in that campaign, something that often left anti-war supporters frustrated. Citing past writings and a 1968 radio interview, Sandbrook concludes that “McCarthy simply did not believe that aggressive, excited or declamatory rhetoric was appropriate during a period of national crisis.”

The author, a lecturer in American history at the University of Sheffield, took on a difficult project–writing about events in another country that occurred before he was born but are still recent enough for many people to have a very different sense of them. Among other things, many Americans would quarrel with his sense that anti-Communist foreign policies were a matter of choice, not national necessity, or that when Democrats fought for civil rights they were seeking “mild reform” instead of deep changes in American life. Nor, for that matter, would very many people other than McCarthy have shared Sandbrook’s view that polls in 1969 and 1971 demonstrated that “McCarthy had every chance of being the Democratic nominee in 1972.” And not even Jimmy Carter’s severest domestic critics would have sneered that he “claimed to have been ‘born again.’”

Still, while he is clearly wrong on those details and probably on his choice of McCarthy as a symbol of the rise and fall of liberalism (Humphrey might have been a better choice), there is value in seeing how diligent scholars from abroad see this country. Sandbrook’s sense that McCarthy and others, had they tried harder, could have changed the nation in fundamental ways is a thoughtful challenge to the conventional historical sense that they tried as hard as they could but had to compromise with, or sometimes surrender to, powerful forces of the status quo.

Adam Clymer, political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, retired last summer as Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

Adam Clymer, political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, retired last summer as Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

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