Dustin Hoffman, Jules Feiffer, Other NY Liberals Go GaGa for Eugene McCarthy


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May 23, 1968, Vol. XIII, No. 32

The Limits of Power In a Garden of Delights
by Michael C. D. Macdonald

At first, things don’t look good. Backstage, a network reporter complains, “no crowd releases, seats look a bit empty as the show starts at 7. But on it goes — and it is well-paced, star-studded, versatile: full of steam, eloquence, and fun for a very packed and happy house. Gerry Moore and Tony Randall as emcees are both witty and brief, and even Jerry Rubin cconcedes, “It’s a hit!” Or, as Dwight Macdonald quips: “You kow, this is so good that McCarthy can’t possibly win, it’s that sophisticated.” Producers Kermit Bloomgarden and Marc Merson and director Fielder Cook have done the impossible — they have earned their program credits for a political rally!

There is the satire of Elaine May and Renee Taylor as two gushing McCarthyites trying to define their passions politic to a cool Gene Wilder. For Kennedyites like this writer, the skit adds fuel to the fire: it’s Feiffer (McCarthy delegate that he is) come to life, the liberal sentimentalist of lit-land on display…but it’s a cheery blaze to watch and enjoy. Even better is a skit by Neil Simon about the Day That Lyndon Withdrew. It opens with Humphrey (brilliantly puffed into vibrant life of face, voice, and body by Tony Randall) pumping into the Oval Room: “By golly, by gum, gee whillikers, don’t ya look wonderful, Mr. President!” to which Johnson (perfect laconic brutality from Larry Blyden): “All right, cut the crap, Hubie. I got somethin’ to tell ya.”

Or there is Phil Ochs playing “I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” while wearing a “Free Huey Newton” button and getting the biggest hand of the night. Dustin Hoffman? He arrives on stage with hands in his pockets and a good “Graduate” fantasy: “This is probably the first and last time I’ll ever get to bomb out in Madison Square Garden — I almost want to look up and say, ‘Winner, and still heavyweight champion of the world.'” Or how about Alan Arkin reading from “Catch-22” and adding a final, “All I can say is, vote for Gene McCarty and bring our boys home — from Toronto.”

Finally, there is Arthur Miller. Talking about the “hidden secrets” which various candidates have kept unto themselves, Miller derides Nixon with his “secret plan to end the war in Vietnam” and Kennedy with his “let’s not inject personalities into things” pre-New Hampshire mystique. Or there is Humphrey, “who will not run on Johnson’s record, but will now reveal many new ideas of his own, as if locked in the back room of a pharmacy with his prescriptions all these years.” Suddenly, “these men are struck with their need to share their secrets with the public — you might call it the New Hampshire Syndrome,” he deadpans as the audience roars and applauds. Miller concludes that these revolutionary times need a man who can respond openly and that this role is “forbidden to all but one who dared to face that judgment while the other ones were on their knees keeping their hidden thoughts.”

It is an electric speech and even Allard Lowenstein’s eloquent plea that follows — reminding everyone that the war in Vietnam has intensified and that the battle for McCarthy faces its crucial hours — is lost in the sequence. It is just that Lowenstein, the prime mover behind the McCarthy campaign and now locked in a tough primary fight for the Democratic Congressional nomination in Nassau, should speak before McCarthy. It is too bad that he — or even McCarthy — should have to follow Miller.

…Finally, McCarthy arrives. The house lights stay turned all the way up, the band plays “The Saints Go Marching In,” and for four minutes everyone is waving and shouting and stomping the aluminum portable seating around the ring in a triumphal salute to the man in baggy pants with cuffs who tenderly holds the microphone with both hands, waving a bit and grinning a lot. Near the stand, Joe Rauh jumps up and down flashing the V sign, while on the side, campaign manager Blair Clark puffs away on his perpetual pipe, breaking into a rare grin, before lapsing into basic Buddhadom.

McCarthy finally begins: “I think this is the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve had in the long trail,” and grins through the ensuing minute of wild huzzahs. He then gives a fairly dull speech (the urban crisis again) but as his sentences trail along and he discards most of his text, the audience follows patiently, shouting their love at any excuse of form or content. Down front, speechwriter Jeremy Larner and Alan Arkin grin two fine moustaches, and nearby smile the trio of Robert Lowell, Jason Epstein in his Sunday Worst (no tie, beat-up corduroys, unpressed tweed), and Jules Feiffer (“there are faulty sight-lines to this Garden rally, but otherwise…”), while closer to McCarthy sit the happy Barbara Epstein, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Harriet Lowell in their Sunday best (sighs Miss Hardwick: “Oh it’s just like an old Kentucky rally. The Happy Chandler days all over again!”) — and all the while McCarthy comes on serious.

After the speech, a brief tour of the ring with a few handshakes and then a quick exit and the crowd happily leaves after a last minute appeal from a Poor People’s Campaign organizer…

I leave with mixed feelings. Yes, McCarthy is a good and a great man, but is it his followers and his young staff, is it more simply his guts in “buying the first drink” in New Hampshire that we applaud, or is it Presidential qualities that we admire? Someday, when our nation is ready for more stable forms of government, we may be ready for McCarthy, but for now his elitist cool seems wrong for wounded times that need the risk of an abrasive Kennedy flame to sear up the flesh. Meanwhile, New York’s liberals had a night on the town: if this has been a last hurrah it’s been one hell of a howl.

Perhaps the final words were those so eloquently spoken earlier in the evening by Robert Lowell — perhaps they best present the feelings that most liberals have about McCarthy. Lowell it was who first symbolized the intellectuals’ revolt against Johnson, and now Lowell who, in great personal sadness but patriotic caution and concern, must first sound a warning for a possible, but orderly retreat. Says Lowell: “What we want and seldom get is a President with an eye for the unexpected, one bold and generous in his mind…one with the serenity of casualness…We must stick by Senator McCarthy, and stick as fiercely as we can, to the end, to the turn of the tide, so that he — or, if not he, alas, another — may defeat Humphrey at Chicago and Nixon in November.”

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