In comments on a previous post, Chris mentioned the passing of Richard Pryor. Another icon, of a very different sort but of the same era, Senator and Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy also passed away today. McCarthy's anti-war campaign brought the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson to an end. It's arguable, on the other hand, that by doing so he brought Richard Nixon into office. Either way you look at it, it was historic.
Pictured here, by the way, is a McCarthy campaign button, and it is no pulled-it-off-the-net picture. I just dug out my own McCarthy button and took a snapshot. I'm pretty sure that this is from his 1972 campaign, not from the more historically significant 1968 campaign. Being here in New Hampshire I'm somewhat spoiled by having had more access to candidates than most -- but the first candidate I saw in person was McCarthy in 1968, when he was campaigning in New Jersey and some sort of rally occurred at a hotel that also ran an swim club that my family belonged to. I was seven years old, and I had no real sense of politics, not to mention what McCarthy stood for, but I do remember that I was allowed to get an ice cream bar when he was passing through, so if I had been allowed to vote I think that probably would have sealed my vote for him By the time 1972 came around, I was very much aware of politics, and I did have a button from that campaign. The one pictured here isn't it, though. I lost my original in a move somewhere, and I picked this one up at a flea market sometime in the 80s.
I read an essay when I was in college, as assigned reading in a class on American politics, written by Garry Wills. I actually emailed him once, not too long ago actually, because this essay comes back into my mind fairly frequently, and I was wondering if he could help me locate a copy. (Unfortunately, he couldn't recall where it was published.) The major thesis of the essay was that mastery of the very skills required to succeed in both politics and governing favored mediocrity instead of excellence in politicians. He specifically claimed that the need to make frequent compromises and deals in both campaigns and in the process of passing laws ruled out men or women with excellent principles, and that the need to appear non-threatening to the common voter ruled out men or women of excellent intellect. He cited Eugene McCarthy as one of the examples of politicians ultimately hindered by his own excellence.
Richard Pryor was so big in the mid 70s that Jackson Brown included him in "The Load Out" on the Running on Empty album in 1977:
Now we got country and western on the bus,
R and B,
We got disco in eight tracks and cassettes in stereo,
We've got rural scenes & magazines
We've got truckers on the CB
We've got Richard Pryor on the video
Of course they had Richard Pryor on the video! If you were cool, if you were out on the edge, if you were conscious of the social changes happening all around you, and if you wanted to laugh, you watched Richard Pryor. (Well, you probably listened on LP, 8-track or cassette, as home video was in it's infancy at that point.) As I'm writing this, SNL just played the famous clip of Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor doing a word association exercise, supposedly as part of a job interview. (I probably wouldn't have been watching SNL, but I suspected that they might do a small tribute.) Most Americans, when asked who made edginess in comedy acceptable, might think of SNL, and SNL did have George Carlin as the host of its first show. But it was that Richard Pryor as host a few weeks later, and that sketch in particular, that I think really established the edginess that SNL came to mean in those early years. Richard Pryor had that edge. Like it did with Lenny Bruce, being out on that edge eventually damaged Pryor, but he came back from the brink and even used it to reach new peaks.