Poet Politician

Senator McCarthy, in politics, was a poet.  Think about that.  I know him as a person who wrote poetry.  This is not right, it is not enough.   As I learn more and think more of my fellow Minnesotan, I realize he was a poet politician. Such a man has within his being deep truths which we might do well to understand in these times of war and hardship and false gods.  It is such a man who gives us hints of that which is the substance of transcendent good.

Gene McCarthy wrote a poem for each of his and Abigail McCarthy’s children, Ellen, Mary, Margaret and Michael.   I loved these poems.  They have a deep meaning, a deep meaning as a gift to each child.

For now, I want to tell of the poem for Michael.  This poem has been on my mind for months.  It opens a window to the mind, heart and soul of Gene McCarthy and to the basic existential condition of a good man.

It is good to be careful, and wise:
You came home from your first day
Of preschool religious education
With advice for God.
. . .
Sixth-grade ancient history.
What would you have liked to have been
If alive then? The choices:
An emperor, a soldier, a martyr.
“No” you wrote, “a lion.”
And after the action,
You said to an old experienced lion,
“Those were brave people we just ate.”
“Yes,” he replied, “they were Christians.
They like to die for their faith.”
You conclude. “I wish I were a Christian
So that I could die for my faith.
But I am a lion.”

This poem must have been written when Michael was a very young – long before 1968 and New Hampshire primary and that which happened there, what had happened to the soul of Gene McCarthy.

My guess is that he was aware of some deep and lasting currents in his being.  The deep essence of his calling as a son of his parents and their character, his schooling at St. John’s in Collegeville nearby, and the eleven months as a Benedictine Monk Novitiate at St. John’s Abbey.  He knew of the meaning of the martyrdom, the truth of the martyr.  However, it could be he knew he was a lion which wished he was a Christian “so that he could die for [his] faith.”

This is what happened in 1968:  He challenged one of the strongest American Presidents, one who had a policy of war in an ancient land with ancient people and thier families and children the combatants and he prevailed.  President Johnson decided not to run again for Presidentcy, his conscience troubled by the war in Vietnam.  He challenged Senator Robert Kennedy in the presendential primary win in California which ended in the assassination of Senator Kennedy Sirhan Sirhan.  Did he, perhaps unknowingly, feel he was responsible for both losses?  I do not know, but I suspect so, suspect so in his subconscious.  One cannot forget the pained picture of Gene McCarthy alone head bowed at the funeral of Senator Kennedy.

Gene McCarthy  had been the lion, but knew that being a lion and surpassing others was not what was the truth.  The truth for him was the purpose he pursued, the single purpose he was committed to — the end of the war in Viet Nam.

In all of this, I think he became a martyr who died emotionally and spiritually because of his faith, his view of a personal purpose of Christian reason.  He was forever changed by the end of the spring of 1968.

“I wish I were a Christian
So that I could die for my faith.
But I am a lion.”

Though he found himself a lion, he knew it was not that he wanted to become one. He wished he was a Christian so he could die for his faith.  In a sense, that is what happened to him.  And, from that point on, in 1968, he lived as a martyr of the truth of Christianity.  His life from then on became a quiet unmistakable purpose. There was no truth for him regarding the impact of the 1968 primary on his friend President Johnson, nothing but remembrance of the good of his colleague, Robert F. Kennedy, or the possibility of struggle against his friend Hubert Humphey.  Life took a great turn for him.  I think I can see the deep source of that turn  in the Poem for Michael.

Note: The poem is printed in Gene McCarthy’s Minnesota: Memories of a Native Son was published in 1982 by Winston Press of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Amazon. It is a collection of sketches and poetry of Minnesota and Gene McCarthy and his family

About Steve Eugster

I am Stephen Kerr Eugster, my family on my mother's side (Kepner and Kerr) come from Swift County. I am a lawyer. I practice law at my own law firm, Eugster Law Office PSC. I have practiced law in the state of Washington since the fall of 1970. I am mostly a public trust, public interest lawyer these days.
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