Sunday, August 13, 2006

Michael Novack -- remembrances of Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and others

This link will have little meaning for those younger than me, so feel free to skip it if you wish. Those of us alert to the world around us at the time will become almost teary-eyed as we read. Unless, of course, you were among the AuH2O crowd.

I loved Gene McCarthy. The verb is not too strong. Many an evening, before and afterward, he would sit in our living room after dinner and respond to the invitation to recite some poetry—especially Yeats—and he would demur, and wisecrack, and then launch out into thirty or forty minutes of long ballads he had committed to memory. He had the perfect Irish voice for the part, understated but full of music. Occasionally, he’d stumble on a line and have to begin it again. Once or twice a tear would appear in his eye at an especially affecting part. “Michael, do we have time for another one?” he would ask. “Just this short one,” he would rush on with a smile. He loved reciting poetry and had too few occasions for it. He much preferred poetry to political speeches, but at the latter he also excelled.

....Bobby [Kennedy] was, in fact, a kind of “secular saint” such as I had described in the article by that name in Momentum. True, I had in mind people even more secular than he, who show compassion and do good deeds and work with hope. They may be secular and yet they act as Christians would want to act.

How can that be, not to believe, and yet to act as though one were a Christian? Albert Camus pondered that puzzle.

In Bobby’s case, I tended to agree with Gene McCarthy. Bobby seemed to me, like his brothers, Catholic by birth, habit, and perhaps even sentiment—but not by intellect or the learning appropriate to his station. One wondered which serious religious authors he or his brothers had read, if any.

Thus, in a sense, Bobby, too, struck me as a “secular” saint. He seemed to touch a lot of nonbelievers in a highly moral, aspiring way. It is said that “at the heart of Christianity lies the sinner.” So I am by no means arguing that Bobby Kennedy was sinless. We didn’t know then about his liaisons with Marilyn Monroe. Yet even if we had, some of us would not have been too hard on his weaknesses in certain areas, but more inclined to look upon his sheer raw guts and the burning determination of his eyes when he glimpsed something he had to do and fight through, whatever unknown difficulties he must face.

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