Sunday, December 11, 2005

The messengers

It seems trite to say that Eugene McCarthy and Richard Pryor led very different lives.

McCarthy opted for the path of a college professor and maverick Minnesota politician who criticized everything from the 1950s communist witch hunts to campaign finance reform, while Pryor took the road of an actor and foul-mouthed stand-up comedian who struggled with cocaine addiction and multiple sclerosis. Only the circumstance that their deaths came within a few hours of each other Saturday brought them together in the public's mind.

In a way, though, the linkage is appropriate, because the main legacy of both men will be their roles as messengers who were in the right place at the right time. McCarthy's strong performance in the 1968 New Hampshire primary showed Vietnam-era politicians that they no longer could write off antiwar sentiment as the sole province of hippies and radicals, while Pryor's raw stand-up in the years after the civil rights movement let an entire generation of entertainers know that racially charged humor not only can get laughs but also can be a vehicle for profound social commentary.

Each blazed trails in his own right. Godspeed to both of them.

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