McCarthy is still taking on the establishment

May 03, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MINNEAPOLIS -- More than 30 years ago, when the United States last experienced a powerful anti-war protest against its involvement in Vietnam, the most influential voice was that of Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota.

His challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire triggered Johnson's retirement and was the rallying point for the antiwar movement, though U.S. forces continued to fight the war for another six years.

Now, with U.S. air power hammering Yugoslavia in an effort to reverse the ethnic cleansing of President Slobodan Milosevic, Mr. McCarthy returned to his home state the other day amid another, much smaller, protest in some quarters over the latest U.S. military involvement.

His key topics before two friendly audiences were the fall of the U.S. Senate and of the Democratic Party. But in the course of his speeches, he made some critical observations about current U.S. foreign policy.

But they were made, it seemed, more in a tone of ridicule and resignation than in any effort to light another fire of protest under his listeners. At 83, he has lost none of the verbal bite that characterized his halcyon antiwar days.

"I don't know what our foreign policy is now. NATO, for example, should have been abandoned once the Soviets broke up their system because it had no target," Mr. McCarthy said, speaking at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

From that remark, it is clear that he thinks NATO's role in the current crisis is misguided.

He also suggested that U.S. foreign policy makers should have understood much earlier the depth of ethnic animosity in the Balkans. To illustrate, he told the story of going to veteran Rep. John Blatnik years ago when a Minnesota vacancy occurred in the U.S. Senate. "Should I ask Rudy Perpich [then the governor] to appoint you?" he asked Blatnik. "He said, `No, he won't do it.' I said, `Why?' He said, `Well, I'm a Slovenian and he's a Croatian.' " After Mr. McCarthy left the Senate, he often said that his old legislative body had shared the blame for the Vietnam tragedy because it had given Johnson a blank check in voting for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and in not cutting through the official rationalizations for continued U.S. involvement. Today, he points again to a failure of the Senate to have demanded that the Clinton administration come before it to explain its thinking on coping with Milosevic and ethnic cleansing. The argument is integral to his old theme that the Senate has allowed the executive branch to erode its role as partner in framing foreign policy.

After his speech here, Mr. McCarthy said the partitioning of Kosovo along ethnic population lines is probably the eventual answer. But these days he seems most content to aim his barbs at figures of the past, particularly former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, for what he considers their deceptions on Vietnam.

In a second talk before the Hemenway Forum in St. Paul, Mr. McCarthy turned his acid wit on changes in the presidential nomination process since his 1968 failed bid to become the Democratic nominee. In the process, he took particular aim at state governors as presidential candidates, as well as vice presidents, military men, corporate chief executive officers and ministers.

In this regard, he got off some zingers at the expense of former President Jimmy Carter, noting at one point that "Jimmy said he talked nine times a day to Jesus." They must have been, Mr. McCarthy observed, "useless calls after about the fifth call." That one got a good laugh, too.

In all, it is still the same old acerbic Mr. McCarthy sticking verbal pins, though no longer with a voice of influence.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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