Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 10, 2003
An elegant citizen stood up, spoke out
By MSGR. JIM LISANTE
I've been interviewing people on television for about 15 years, including guests from government and the arts, religious leaders and captains of business and industry. When I started on a small cable station, the show was called Let's Talk. It was a live, call-in program. You had to be quick on your feet to deal with tough caller questions, as well as to screen sometimes over-the-top individuals.
Friends asked if I was ever nervous about interviewing famous people. And I was, a little. They can be daunting. But I came to see they were people just like everyone else.
I recall, for instance, a successful Broadway actor who intimidated me with his fame. But during a commercial break, he shared his frustration in raising kids who weren't impressed by his public face. They gave him the same hard time most teens give their parents. It was a wonderfully leveling moment and freed me from the inclination to be overly impressed by guests just because of their fame. Well, all except one.
As a high school student, I was affected by the controversy over Vietnam. Like many children of Second World War era parents, I was inclined to be patriotic and to believe that my country was always on the side of what was good. But slowly and painfully, I came to see that something about the war in Vietnam was not at all correct.
When I read the book by former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, admitting the war was never winnable and morally suspect, I remember thinking, "I guess we knew that even then." But President Lyndon Johnson didn't know a way out. The result: 58,000 American casualties, and at least a million Vietnamese dead.
One man who had the gumption to speak out against that war was Eugene McCarthy. A true intellectual, he had considered a life in the priesthood, before marrying and raising a large and loving family.
McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. With many in America throughout the 1960s, he watched the growing war effort with alarm, and hoped that somebody would step forward to challenge the president. He thought that person should be someone of magnitude and public standing, but when no one else would do it, Eugene McCarthy stepped into the breach.
No one took him seriously at first. This bookish fellow would be no match for the master of politics from Texas. But the people had a different idea. Young folks like me. People like my parents. People of different parties and people who'd never belonged to a party liked this straight talking, non-politician politician. And his arguments against a seemingly senseless war took hold. By early 1968 and the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy was drawing huge crowds, demonstrating this wasn't "politics as usual."
And on the day of that primary, McCarthy shocked America by very nearly beating the President. But McCarthy had not wanted to run for president, and he did not, in the end, continue to win on the campaign trail. Still, he had stepped forward because he believed that one person can make a difference - and must stand up and be heard. He reminded us that citizen-politicians who weren't afraid to get involved shaped our country. In the end, he made people take notice.
None of the guests I have interviewed have moved me more than 86-year-old Eugene McCarthy, not for what he achieved in politics, but for his belief that it's never enough to shake our heads at what's wrong.
It is everyone's duty to make the world a better place - in whatever way we can. If we don't, who will?
(For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, Being a Good Neighbour, write: The Christophers, 12 East 48 St., New York, NY, 10017; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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