The tall, gray-haired man walking purposefully down the hall at Commonweal's old Dutch Street offices looked vaguely familiar, but it wasn't until he was within a few feet of me that I recognized the famous face. In 1968 novelist Norman Mailer described a certain aspect of "incorruptibility" in that face as being as hard "as the cold stone floor of a monastery in the North Woods at five in the morning."
Our unexpected guest was Eugene McCarthy, the poet, former senator, courageous antiwar presidential candidate, political gadfly, and longtime Commonweal contributor. McCarthy was in the city pursuing some arcane cause, and he had dropped by to say hello to an old friend, Edward Skillin, Commonweal's publisher. Skillin, as I recall, was out of the office, so McCarthy, with some time to kill and a few unsolicited manuscripts to foist on us, sat and talked for about an hour. We listened. McCarthy is a great storyteller, and an idiosyncratic thinker, a curious mix of New Deal pol, Catholic natural law philosopher, and libertarian. At the time, he was vehemently opposed to limits on political contributions and a severe critic of the much heralded reforms that overturned the old congressional seniority system. McCarthy's radical opposition to the war in Vietnam, it is important to remember, was based on conservative constitutional and moral principles.
Bill Clinton, who possesses a very different sort of face, had just been elected president, and McCarthy expressed guarded admiration for Clinton's vaunted political skills and considerable skepticism regarding everything else about him. In fact, he mischievously demonstrated Clinton's patented handshake, in which the notoriously touchy-feely politician looked you in the eye, grasped your hand with both of his, and then slid one hand up your arm above the elbow until he had you locked in his embrace. McCarthy, who did terrific impressions of Lyndon Johnson and Edmund Muskie as well, left us with the sense that Clinton was a phenomenon worth watching.
McCarthy's hilarious imitation of Clinton on the make came to mind when I read Joe Klein's The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (Doubleday, $22.95, 230 pp.). Klein is perhaps best known as "Anonymous," the author of Primary Colors, his thinly disguised 1996 novel about Clinton's run for the presidency. As a reporter for the New Yorker, Klein went on to cover Clinton in the White House, and his knowledge of the political and policy struggles of those eight years is comprehensive and illuminating. Ideologically, Klein shares Clinton's "New Democrat" agenda. In short, New Democrats, recognizing the disparity between the views of the party's core constituencies and the nation as a whole, hoped to find ways to pursue "liberal ends through conservative means." On that score, …