The poet politician

He agreed with Plato that philosophers should run the government.

Eugene McCarthy knew the bitterness of being right. He was right about the Vietnam War and he was right about almost everything else. He died Saturday at the age of 86. One can read the many obituaries and pieces dedicated to his life, and they all will single out one event: McCarthy’s 1968 wake-up call, a shattering bell in the halls of silence.

1968: that bloody year of assassinations, riots, movements and idealism checks. But the events of 1968 do not entirely embody McCarthy. A part, yes ” an important part that set the course of his life.

McCarthy recognized the horselike nature of politics. Politicians pull for direction but, because of system flaws, are doomed to be whipped by those who have the money and power.

McCarthy, a 1939 graduate of the University, chose a life of writing in the decades that concluded his life. He published more than 20 books and said he agreed with Plato that philosophers should run the government. He found politics to be akin to football, a game requiring intelligence but not so much intelligence that interest was lost.

He was much like Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad’s “Victory,” living the remainder of his life on the island of Woodville, Wash., stuck in a limbo of wishing to be isolated from the perils of the world, but still a reaching out time to time to remind everyone he was right and still is. And near the end, the world would invade that island. He received a flare of media coverage when Howard Dean challenged John Kerry for last years’ Democratic presidential nomination. History is doomed to repeat itself if the people in power are technicians rather than philosophers.

And perhaps that is Eugene McCarthy’s lasting legacy: a lesson that if you are right, that you stick to it for everything because history will exonerate, or at least give your portrait a more favorable appearance. Farewell, Mr. McCarthy, it was nice knowing you.