Eugene McCarthy & the Smearing of Howard Dean
McCarthy's most ardent supporters were college students. Most of my anti-war friends preferred him to Kennedy, as I did (and still do). First, McCarthy had shown more guts than Kennedy by challenging Johnson before it was clear how weak the president's position was. Second, McCarthy came across as cool; Kennedy as anything but. Yet deep down, most of the college kids I knew were mainly just interested in becoming involved. . . .
In many respects, some of them superficial, Robert Kennedy's position in 1967 can be compared to Hillary Clinton's position today. It's more difficult identify the new Gene McCarthy (it's certainly not Howard Dean). He was one of a kind.
Despite the concerted effort to distinguish (with no reasons given) McCarthy from Howard Dean, everything which was said here (and elsewhere) in praise of Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war candidacy applies at least as much to Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. But Dean is still very much alive (and relevant) and McCarthy isn’t, so it’s safe to praise McCarthy but not Dean.
One of the most profoundly dishonest media distortions over the last decade was the almost instantaneous transformation of Howard Dean from what he really is and has long been – a non-ideological, sensible, solidly mainstream, and highly rational medical doctor, Vermont Governor and American citizen whose politics are decidedly moderate and even, with regard to many issues (such as states’ rights, government spending, gun control, and many others), quite conservative – into a freakish cartoon whose insanity and emotional instability are matched only by his rabid affection for socialism and Islamic terrorism. That patently false illusion persists today and will likely never be expunged from many minds.
But whatever else one thinks of Dean, it is impossible to praise McCarthy’s candidacy without praising Dean’s candidacy as well. The factors cited by Paul for admiring McCarthy -- the adoption of his anti-war stance before it was safe and popular, the way in which he galvanized young voters, the obvious authenticity of his beliefs, even his "cool" image -- are all entirely applicable to Howard Dean.
Dean's criticism of the Iraq war has never been even remotely pacifistic, but instead has always been pragmatic, even arguably hawkish. Dean's opposition to this war was predicated upon the (now vindicated) belief that our invasion would distract attention and resources from combating real threats to the U.S., would unleash all sorts of undesirable outcomes, and was based on an exaggerated assessment of the threat posed by Saddam. And while Bush Administration officials and pro-war advocates were issuing absurdly optimistic and inaccurate predictions of what was to come, the highly rational, pragmatic and non-ideological reasons given by Dean for opposing the war were, as it turned out, downright prescient.
Moreover, once we were in Iraq, Dean was at least as hawkish as any other Democratic candidate, and much more hawkish than most of them, about the need to win in Iraq. Once we had invaded and the insurgency flourished, he criticized the Administration for insufficient resolve in our commitment to winning there.
But few people realize any of that today because Dean – who supported both the first Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan – has been outrageously depicted as a zen-chanting pacifist, some sort of hideous leftist hybrid of Joan Baez, Ward Churchill, and Abbie Hoffman, all rolled into one bike-riding, mentally ill, terrorist sympathizing hippy. Just yesterday, Norman Podhoretz in Commentary disgustingly paired Dean with socialist and genuine America-hater Rep. Cynthia McKinney as examples of today’s "Tories" -- those individuals whose allegiance in the Revolutionary War lay not with America but with the British Crown.
Even more significant than Dean’s substantive and largely accurate criticisms of the Iraq war was the effect which his candidacy had on the political dynamic in this country. Like McCarthy’s candidacy, it obviously galvanized huge numbers of young and first-time voters who never had any previous (or subsequent) interest in the political process. But even more so, Dean was one of the very few mainstream political figures willing to stand up and aggressively criticize the President in the 9/11-driven militarized climate in 2002 and 2003, which was characterized by an intimidated reverence for George Bush as the Commander-in-Chief.
It was the time of the almost-unanimously and hastily passed Patriot Act, anthrax attacks, a para-military presence in many of our nation’s cities, Homeland Security alerts, and sky-high popularity ratings for Bush. Most Democrats were cowed into submission, virtually always endorsing every Bush desire and offering only the meekest and most apologetic resistance when they resisted at all.
Howard Dean single-handedly exploded that repressive environment. He galvanized young voters and the Left not because he spouted socialistic ideals or leftist rhetoric (he did not). He energized his supporters because – like the praise for McCarthy today describes – he took his anti-war stand at a time when it was highly unpopular to do so, long before it was safe to do so, and did so unapologetically, with passion and conviction rare for political candidates, leaving it impossible to doubt the authenticity of his beliefs.
And Dean wasn’t the least bit intimidated by George Bush, and wasn’t the slightest bit afraid to challenge and criticize the highly popular President. As a result, Dean forced other Democrats to at least pretend that they had a spine, and he diffused the idea that Democrats, and even Republicans -- in the wake of 9/11 -- had to cower meekly and obediently in the corner and give carte blanche to George Bush as the Great Leader to do whatever he wanted. Regardless of whether one agrees with Dean’s views or not, that was an invaluable service he performed for American politics.
Dean was a threat not just to Republicans, but even more so to establishment Democrats and the privileged media stars who always are hostile to outsiders. That was why it was so easy to caricature and destroy him. He had no real defenders in any power circles to battle against the smear campaign.
Dean is not and never was the crazed Leftist which he has been depicted to be. He is to the right of most Democrats on many vital issues, and he governed Vermont for 10 years as a hard-core fiscal conservative. What he was, and is, is a passionate opponent of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which -- contrary to prevailing wisdom -- makes one neither a Leftist nor a hater of America. As the praise for Eugene McCarthy streams forth over the next couple of days, it is worth analyzing that praise and appreciating its wholesale applicability to Howard Dean.