(Buffalo News May 1995)
Max and I
Max McCarthy, former congressman from New York's old 38th district, died last week in McLean, Virginia. Max was my congressman when I first moved here in 1967. He was one of the first members of congress to be vocal and active on ecological and environmental issues. There was, from my point of view, just one bad thing about Max McCarthy as a congressman, and because of that one thing I was for three months in the spring of 1968 his opponent in the Democratic primaries.
What happened was, I'd written an article for Atlantic Monthly about the October 1967 anti-war demonstration in Washington. The piece ended with something about the need for people to take action. The editor asked me to write a few paragraphs about what action I was going to take. As far as I was concerned, I'd already taken the action appropriate for me: I'd written that article. He said something more, um, active would perhaps be in order.
So I wrote a paragraph about how I planned to run for Congress. I was lying: I had no intention of running for Congress. I had no idea how to run for Congress. The editor was happy to get his paragraphs, the article was published in the January 1968 issue, and I thought that was the end of it.
It wasn't. A month or so later, a delegation turned up at my house, ready to start the primary campaign. I said "We can't run against Max McCarthy. He's a good congressman except for that one thing." We all knew what the one thing was: Max McCarthy supported Lyndon Johnson totally on the war in Vietnam. Max was a certain yes vote on any war funding or policy bill sent to the Hill by Lyndon.
The leader of the group said, "Exactly. It's a perfect one-issue campaign." He and the others had already done a good deal of leg work. They had plans, charts, lists, divisions of labor. I couldn't tell them I had been insincere in the Atlantic Monthly so I said okay, I'm your man.
I was still new to the Buffalo area. Most of what I knew about Max McCarthy I'd learned from people telling stories. The main story I'd heard was that Max, a former ad man, had a few years earlier defeated in a very Republican district a man whose political sentiments were Neolithic. During his first term, Max learned that Lyndon Johnson couldn't find contact lenses that fit properly. Max, according to the story, told Lyndon that he had a great contact lens man in Buffalo. Lyndon came to Buffalo (on more significant business no doubt) and Max set up the optical consultation. Lyndon got his contact lenses, he saw things clearly, and he now owed a big favor to the freshman congressman from New York's 38th district. The next time Max ran, the local party bigshots wanted to dump him in favor of One of the Boys. Max appealed to Lyndon who said to the local bigshots, "You will not dump my friend Max McCarthy." Each man had served the other well, and as a result Max and Lyndon were forever bound in that special way people in politics are forever bound.
How much of that story was true, I don't know; I do remember that everyone I met while I was a candidate seemed to tell me all or part of it. Lyndon and Max may have had more devious motives for supporting one another. All I know for sure is, Max McCarthy, one of the first people in Congress to take an active interest in environmental issues, was marching in absolute lockstep with Lyndon on the war in Southeast Asia.
I started having meetings with people. A few promised money. Several who had given Max money in his previous campaign wouldn't promise me money but they said they wouldn't give Max money either. I bought an electric typewriter. Someone designed a poster that could double as a bumper sticker.
Max called and said maybe we should meet to talk things over. I knew he wouldn't be calling if he wasn't worried. I had to be in Washington the next week on university business, and I was really curious about him, so we set up an appointment.
I remember him as a likeable, slightly thick man of less than medium height. The most striking think about him was his coke-bottle glasses. He introduced me to his wife, who worked for him, a daughter who worked for him, and someone else (either an old friend or another relative) who worked for him. I felt like a real rat, trying to take gainful employment from this half-blind likable guy and what seemed to be his extended family.
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn the one injunction in street fights was, you can't hit someone with glasses on. People who couldn't see at all had it made because you couldn't hit someone who was mostly blind either, so you couldn't hit them with their glasses on or with their glasses off.
Max said there wasn't enough money for a Democratic primary fight and a Democratic run in the general election. I said I agreed, so maybe he should consider dropping out. He said he thought maybe I'd consider dropping out. I said I was in it on a single issue: the war. If he turned around on the war, I'd not only drop out but I'd support him. Max said that was impossible. Anything else, but not that. He couldn't undermine or betray or abandon his good friend and our president Lyndon Johnson.
My campaign in Buffalo got weird and sometimes downright ugly. When it comes to the possibility of power, the left and the right differ not one iota: everybody goes into a state of existential lust. People wanted me to promise things, they wanted me to stop talking to other people, they wanted me to help them gang up on other people. One anti-war group wouldn't publicly support me because one of their directors had worked very hard for Max the last time and they didn't want her to seem inconsistent. I argued that she and her group had said repeatedly that the war was the single most important issue facing the country. They said that was true, but it was important not to seem inconsistent. I met more people who were sincere and dedicated than people who were venal and looney but the venal and looney took far more time. I found out very quickly that I had neither the stomach nor the skill for elective politics.
Here's something else I learned: some of those people might not do much once they get elected, but getting elected is astonishingly hard work.
Then one warm spring day Max called and said he giving a speech that evening to the League of Women Voters. He said he wasn't sure about some parts of it and since I was a college English teacher, might I, perhaps, take a few minutes to look it over for him. Sure, I said. I knew this visit was going to be about more than prose style, but I had no idea what Max was really up to.
Max arrived about five, came in the door, shook my hand, and my dog Lulu bit him on the ankle. I never did find out what had gotten into Lulu that day. Normally, she never tried to bite anyone but the mailman. If by accident Lulu got out in the morning, she'd lurk in the bushes, motionless, for an hour in the hope of catching the mailman unawares. That morning she'd successfully nipped the mailman, in the early afternoon she'd nipped C.L. "Joe" Barber (a professor in the SUNY Buffalo English department), and now she nipped my congressional opponent Max McCarthy. This was not good.
Max was very affable about it. He said dogs had often barked at him in campaigns when he went around knocking on doors and saying hello to people he didn't know. This was, he said, rubbing his ankle, the first time one actually got a piece of his leg.
We sat. My wife offered coffee, a bit of pastry. We each had some of each, chatted about dogs, Buffalo weather--you know, foreplay. Then we put down the cups and pushed aside the plate with the pastry and Max handed me a large manila envelope inside of which were several typewritten sheets. About two-thirds of the way through I came to a paragraph that said something like this: For a long time it made sense for us to be in the war in Vietnam and he had consistently supported the president; but now the war no longer made sense, so he could no longer in good conscience support the president; it was time for us to bring the soldiers home and get back to normal. I don't remember the exact words, but that's the sense.
"You're going to give this speech?" I said.
"Unless you think there's something in it I should change," Max said.
I said he shouldn't change a word. I said it was a perfect speech. I said if he gave that speech I was out of the primary and I would do whatever I could to get whoever had supported me to support him.
"Thank you," he said.
"No, thank you," I said.
Max gave his speech to the League of Women Voters. I withdrew forever from elective politics with some measure of honor and an enormous amount of relief.
I said before that Max and Lyndon were bound the way people in politics are bound. That means the ropes binding you hold perfectly until it looks like you're both going to go down, at which point one (and sometimes both) of you gets out the trusty pocket knife and starts sawing. By the time Max came to my house for me to check his prose and him to be bitten on the ankle by Lulu, Lyndon Johnson had announced he would not seek reelection for the presidency. I'll never know if Max McCarthy had a real change of heart on the war or if he was just being a practical politician.
Not that it made much difference in the long run. Richard Nixon was elected that November with a promise to end the war using a secret plan only he knew. After several more years of fighting, the secret plan took effect and a peace accord was signed. In the 1970 election someone talked Max McCarthy into giving up his safe House seat and running for Bobby Kennedy's seat in the Senate. Whatever had made it possible for nice-guy half-blind liberal Max McCarthy to obtain and retain his congressional seat in the most conservative part of Erie county didn't play south of the Niagara frontier. Max's senatorial campaign went nowhere and his political career was over.
After that, Max wrote newspaper and magazine articles commenting on the political scene, which is what I had been doing when I found myself running against him in the democratic primary. So the final ironic note in this story is this: instead of me getting Max's job, Max wound up getting mine.