Saturday, December 10, 2005

Richard Pryor and Eugene McCarthy, and racism and war

The passing of two prominent men, each of whom could be described by the same word, 'anti-establishment', is reported today.

Richard Pryor and Eugene McCarthy had a lot in common, but came at the American psyche from completely opposite directions. And because they were hardly two guys who traveled in the same circles, there's more than a small measure of irony that they proceed side-by-side to the hereafter.

Pryor made racism in America something white and black people could laugh at together -- the first time that may have happened (some would say Redd Foxx was ahead of him).

Eugene McCarthy made an increasingly unpopular war a seminal moment for the Democratic Party (and the nation).

And while the issues they tackled were -- are -- far from resolved, their places in history are safe simply by the impact they each had in shifting the conventional thinking of the time.

Pryor released an album while I was in high school in the mid-'70's called "That Nigger's Crazy". We rode around drinking beer listening to it and laughing our AO --and I grew up in small east Texas town where the Klan had a bookstore on Main Street. He later did a movie, one of my favorites, with Jill Clayburgh and Gene Wilder -- "Silver Streak" -- which started a long cinematic collaboration with Wilder. A couple of years later when I was in college, a racially mixed group of my friends went to see "Stir Crazy" and we cracked up all over again.

I was too young to be much aware of Senator McCarthy's influence on the political landscape; I was getting ready for Boy Scout camp in the summer of '68 when McCarthy's anti-Vietnam war campaign forced LBJ out of the race for the White House. McCarthy's campaign splintered an already fractious Democratic party that election year, and the American racial divide was on full display on the ballot that November with George Wallace, (I).

And that's how we got Nixon (and many more years of war and death and dirty political tricks and lies and high crimes).

I doubt whether McCarthy and Pryor ever met and discussed their respective influences on American pop and political culture, but it pleases me that they are somewhere tonight -- outside the pearly gates, or maybe some place warmer -- talking about it and having a chuckle.

Rest in peace, gentlemen.

Update (12/11) : Digby's got a great reminiscence of Pryor posted.

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