Washington Wisdom: Gene McCarthy on Viable and Non-Viable Alternatives

Gene McCarthy, a Minnesota college professor who became a U.S. Senator, was a wise observer of Washington politics. Here he describes the difference between Viable and Non-Viable Alternatives.

Distinguishing between the Viable and the Non-Viable Alternative is a formidable challenge. It is comparable between poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms.

Non-Viable Alternatives, as a rule, are not difficult to find. They usually hang around, hoping to be noticed. They sit with arms folded and will not be budged. They tend to be stumbled over.

Many Viable Alternatives are short-lived. An alternative that is viable one day may be dead the next day. On the other hand, a change in climate, especially of political climate, may cause the revitalization of a dead or torpid alternative.

Little need be said of the third variety, the Unthinkable Alternative. Using the CIA to pull the whiskers of a foreign leader is an Unthinkable Alternative. The best that can be said of Unthinkable Alternatives is that they are regularly thought about.

Alternative experts are distinguished by their language. Like lawyers and foreign policy experts, they say things such as “Yes, but” or “either/or”  or “On the one hand and then on the other. ” Alternatives meet, only one can survive. “Both/and” alternatives, on the other hand, can live together.

Viable Alternatives, if not recognized and noticed, will often lie around making reproachful sounds and saying something that sounds like “I told you so.”

This was first published in the October 1978 Washingtonian; it was part of an article, “A Political Bestiary,” written by McCarthy with journalist James J. Kilpatrick, with illustrations by Jeff MacNeely, that became a small book published in 1978 by McGraw-Hill.


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