Eugene McCarthy Gets a Harsh Heckling by Edward Albee
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January 28, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 4
The Candidate From Parnassus
By Frederic Morton
We're in 1971 and Presidential noises are loud in the land, coming from guys good and bad. I'm trying to remember the sounds of a Great Good Guy, heard in a private apartment back in October of last year. Mostly I get memories of an awful cold.
Let's see. I'm in a room brimming with Spiro Agnew's choicest demonology: Mary McCarthy; Hannah Arendt; the Hentoffs Nat and Margot; Bob Silvers and Elizabeth Hardwick of the New York Review; George Segal of the movies; George Bernard Shaw by way of a bust by Jacob Epstein; other illuminati, alive and sipping, on other pedestals; the Great Good Guy himself; and last not least, my terri [line cut off end of page] would clear the passages -- but in such a place?
I'm off to blow in the bathroom. Ahead of me, toward the same destination, trudges Arthur Goldberg. Trudges, slogs, and drags since he's in the last phase of not being elected. He won't get the governorship; he does get the bathroom. I turn back to the drinks table. Vodka should clear the sinuses. And there, right by the ice bucket, stands the Great Good Guy.
"Senator McCarthy," says the hostess, "this is Frederic Morton." A brilliant salon-keeper, she swiftly weaves in my credentials. He, equally brilliant in his line of work, cuts her off even more swiftly.
"Of course. I'm so glad you came. I've already had to confess this to a couple of people here -- it's harder to write a good book than to run for President."
I have a bitch of a cold and I'm being complimented a shade too expertly by a quasi-myth. Not to mention the fact that I was an RFK man. Clean Gene, with your senatorial waistcoat, your face of a graying Irish sneer -- are you patronizing? electioneering? or really a reader? And now that you've moved on, what pleasant thing are you saying to Elaine May?
"Will he make an announcement for '72?" I ask the hostess.
She nods. Almost immediately a spoon tinkles against glass. We must all find chairs. Which means that Arthur Goldberg, who has just come trudging back, has vacated the bathroom for me in vain. I can't blow, I must sit. Gene McCarthy rises, a stately waistcoat fountain of rectitude, of rarefied maverickdom and, presumably, of eloquence. The bathroom is out, the vodka doesn't work, but I have new hope I smell the smell of history even with my loused-up membranes: the Senator might say something electric. There might be applause, and in the applause I could hide the terribly urgent blowing of my nose.
But Gene McCarthy, it develops, will not stoop to being electric. To be rousing would smack of rubble. This is an elite moment far above passion or snotty handkerchiefs or lectern-thumping. Gene McCarthy speaks as the New Yorker writes, in exquisite low-key, in civilized ironies, a poet-philosopher musing aloud to his peers; a sensibility that sees everything, from postal rates (he sat on the Government Operations Committee) to politics, as metaphors of deeper universals.
"Excuse me," a voice says.
"Everybody speaking up, please identify yourself," someone else says.
"I'm Edward Albee and I write plays. I talked up and down the country for you, Senator, the last time around. But I don't know exactly where you're going now. Would you tell us?"
"Well, that's a fair question, that'w why I'm here," Gene McCarthy says. "Essentially I want to operate outside existing structures. Outside the Senate and probably outside the Democratic Party. Those two are important organizations, but they've become parochial. The leap we all have to make is from the parochial to the essential..."
Onward the socratic baritone floats on its fine current...
"Excuse me, Senator," says the voice. "My name is Edward Albee. I write plays."
"I've been listening to you," Edward Albee says," but I haven't heard an answer to my question. Where are you going? If you're going to announce for '72, what is your program? Please!"
"You are right, " says Gene McCarthy. "I'm coming to that. The point is to work not only beyond convenient political structure but also beyond convenient political concepts. I don't have to tell that to this room because everyone here has probably shacked up with ideas more successfully than I..."
...Gentle, deprecating laughter.
"...But the fact is, the moment you limit yourself to the convenient, you limit yourself to something that's already obsolete--"
"Excuse me, I'm Edward Albee again, I write plays and I've come here to listen to your program. I'd walk 10 miles to hear you say something. But say it, will you please?"
"I'm terribly flattered."
"Man, say something about your program!"
Arthur Goldberg opens his eyes. Small flurries of disturbance all around, but not nearly enough disturbance in which to drown a nose-blow. The disturbing thing is that Albee is not only right but drunk.
Gene McCarthy's socratic smile rides sovereign across the waves. "I'm very flattered." His hands hook themselves serenely on his waistcoat pockets. "As you know, the difference between program and propaganda is the intention behind it. I can be an awfully dull stickler when it comes to intention. That's because this country is often disastrously naive about its own intentions -- "
"Look, Senator, I don't want to keep interrupting you unless you make me even angrier -- "
"Senator, I'm Elaine May, and to save you from Edward's -- insistence, I think what he wants to know -- "
"Oh please don't ever save me from people like him," the Senator smiles. "Or from yourself, Elaine. Please go ahead."
"We would like to hear your practical approach to basic things like Vietnam or the ghettos."
"Right. You've just named two of our fundamental evils, the result of something basic in us gone wrong. Except we can't combat such evils with basics of our own that are also wrong -- "
"I'm Edward Albee and I write plays and this has gone on for a long time now and you haven't given us a single blessed basic!"
Hubbub. A new voice has taken over. This is all faintly surrealistic. Now my ears are as jammed up as my nose; I'm under the impression that this new voice is Henry Kissinger's aunt chastising her nephew. I focus my hearing: it's Hannah Arendt, talking soothingly, sensibly about war, peace, the need for unity among such as us.
"As usual, Hannah," the Senator says, "you put things much better than I could."
"I'm Edward Albee and I write plays, and I'll get you to say something if it kills me! You say, operate outside political structures! What does that mean? Form an independent party? You going to formulate a platform? What? Please!"
"Well, I think I have enough momentum to be on my own -- "
"Say something! Will that organization have an identity? A real chance in '72?"
"If it doesn't have a real chance in '72, it ought to provide a real basis for '76 -- "
" '76! We might all be dead by '76!"
"Well, I think one thing we're all hung up on is the deadline psychology -- "
"Ah," says Eugene McCarthy.
It is quite an "Ah." It has pulled his hands out of his waistcoat and wedged them into his jacket pockets. It makes limp Arthur Goldberg stiffen. Me, it makes me suspect that I do have fever and that the bust of Bernard Shaw has a head cold as furious as mine. If this were the living GBS he'd relieve himself with one fierce magnificent rude noise. But there is no noise. The room is terribly still.
"Ah," Gene McCarthy says. With a different voice. "You want a second act from me? Is that what it is?" His hands come out of his jacket pockets, very knuckle. "I'm going to tell you something. You never had a second act in your life. You made a whole career out of not having second acts! And you're not going to bully one out of me now!"
The hands search a bit, the clenched hands of the poet-philosopher, then find the waistcoat pockets. Edward Albee who writes plays has no riposte -- just an emptied glass. It doesn't matter. He has delivered the Senator. He has delivered me: I'm blowing my nose.
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