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Saturday, December 10, 2005

A very sad day
Posted by Jill | 5:50 PM

Two very important people in very different spheres of life died today.

Former Sen. Eugene "Clean Gene" McCarthy died in his sleep in a Georgetown assisted living home.

Eugene McCarthy was the 1968 version of Howard Dean. McCarthy challenged Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential primary race with an anti-war message that resonated so strongly (to the tune of a 42% vote share in the New Hampshire primary) that Johnson ended up withdrawing from the race. After Robert Kennedy, McCarthy's rival who entered the race later on, was assassinated, a party convention full of hacks nominated Hubert Humphrey -- a decent man tainted by his association with the Johnson war escalation -- who was then defeated by Richard Nixon.

The 2004 race resembled 1968 so strongly it was eerie: An anti-war insurgent candidacy took the nation by storm, to the point that the party regulars decided to take the reins and nominate one of their own -- thus exciting no one, and resulting in the election of a lunatic. You'd think the party would have learned.

For many of who were of draft age then, McCarthy was the first political candidate they could see themselves supporting. Quiet and reserved, he galvanized a generation.

McCarthy was always uncategorizable, especially after his failed 1992 candidacy. One always had the sense that he stood for what was right, even if it was at odds with the party.

It's hard to say that McCarthy will be missed, as he's been out of the public eye for a long time -- but his passing closes the door on the first time in my lifetime that a maverick candidate made us believe that we could make a difference.

Another maverick in a completely different sphere also died today.

Richard Pryor died early this morning.

Pryor may have idolized Bill Cosby, but his true comedic spiritual father was Lenny Bruce in the way he brought his personal pain and his experience as a black man into his comedy. Richard Pryor: Live and In Concert (1979) and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) are still two of the funniest stand-up routines ever committed to film.

While much of Pryor's stand-up act dealt with being black in America in the 20th century, his appeal transcended race. For in his reflections on his own self-destructiveness, he made us all look into ourselves. It was Pryor, more so even than his forefather in shock-comedy that changed the nature of stand-up from the kind of Borscht-belt, Jewish dominated arena that had been prevalent prior (no pun intended) to Richard Pryor's departure from the trite performances on television variety shows that characterized his early career to something new, edgy, and different. To say that Pryor could have been Pryor without the recreational self-indulgence that made much of his life hell is like saying that Jimi Hendrix could have done what he did without hallucinogens. There's nothing new in the artist sacrificing himself for his art, and Pryor is perhaps the foremost example of this fact in the art of standup.

Every standup comic working today owes his career to Richard Pryor; from Robin Williams to Lewis Black to Marc Maron. It's somehow fitting that Richard Pryor should leave us on the weekend before Morning Sedition leaves the airwaves for good.

Don McLean sang of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly as "the day the music died." Today may very well be the day that laughter died.
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