Former Senator Eugene J. McCarthy’s death is a subtle reminder to Americans of everything that he represented to our political system. McCarthy’s legacy will be twofold: that he gave the United States a chance to abandon the two-party system, an opportunity the country wasted, and that his refusal to adopt Madison Avenue-style political tactics left him behind the curve in the television era.

Gene McCarthy believed the two-party system had become anachronistic, so he ran for president in 1968 to give voice to an anti-war movement that transcended partisan politics. A Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, had lied to justify an increased presence in Vietnam, a war that became a lightning rod for controversy and that by 1968 actually had more support among Republicans than Democrats. Because the divisions within the Democratic party were put on display at the Chicago convention that year via rioting in the streets outside the hall, Richard M. Nixon, a hawkish Cold Warrior, was narrowly elected over Hubert H. Humphrey, whose dovish impulses were compromised by the fact that he had been vice president during the acceleration of the war; he couldn’t run against it without seeming hypocritical and at once disloyal to his boss, Johnson.

Today a Republican president, George W. Bush, presides over an even more unpopular war in Iraq. Its many parallels to Vietnam have been noted: a moral quandary over invading a sovereign country, an uncertainty about what victory is, lies and half-truths told to justify our continued presence, accusations of unpatriotic conduct against the war’s opponents, an unwillingness to admit mistakes, and confusion about the war’s actual costs and whether they are affordable. But because leading Democrats are not of one mind about how to exit Iraq (when are Democrats of one mind about anything?), Bush and his spokespeople have actually succeeded in shifting the debate from their own misconduct of the war and the deceit that accompanied its origins to internecine arguments among Democrats. For a second time, Republicans with no clearly defined war policy of their own have benefited from dissension in the opposing party.

But Eugene J. McCarthy was more than a war critic. He put a different face on politics, presenting the starkest contrast to the egomaniacal Lyndon Johnson and the driven Richard Nixon, for each of whom politics was a lifelong passion and career path. For Johnson and Nixon, wielding power was an end in itself. McCarthy mistrusted political power as much as he did the two-party system. He was a thoughtful, contemplative man in the Adlai Stevenson mold, one who expressed himself through metaphors to classical literature, ancient history, and baseball. His obliqueness was often taken as a lack of strength…in fact, Abraham Lincoln had often answered questions by citing humorous anecdotes, and Jesus Christ responded to questions from followers with inscrutable parables.

By 1968 television had changed politics forever. John F. Kennedy was elected to the presidency in 1960, largely on the basis of four televised debates with Nixon. Yet people who had heard the debates on radio or read transcripts of them thought Nixon won. Viewers were the larger group, however. They thought Kennedy won, not because of the superiority of his arguments, but because he looked more confident.

Already image was replacing substance as a criterion for political success. In a pattern that has continued to the present, major-party candidates for president began to distinguish themselves from one another less on policy differences than personal style. Jimmy Carter was the outsider who would never lie to us. Ronald Reagan was the great communicator who thought government was the problem. George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, was the steady hand in foreign affairs who somehow had never explained why he thought Reaganomics was voodoo, Bill Clinton the comeback kid, a personal charmer who denied Republicans political advantage by seizing their issues as his own, and George W. Bush the self-proclaimed compassionate conservative whose presidency has been neither compassionate nor conservative.

Each of these presidents was elected less on policy differences or on his own accomplishments than by painting his opponent negatively, using sophisticated media techniques and negative political advertising. Jimmy Carter used Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon against him. Reagan took advantage of runaway inflation, high interest rates, and the Iran hostage crisis (all only partly Carter’s fault) to run against the federal government itself; Bush # 41 used the negative buzzword “liberal” against Michael Dukakis, who somehow never saw fit to reply that Thomas Jefferson was a great liberal. Clinton turned the tables on Bush # 41 by blaming him for the 1991 recession. Bush # 43 ran against Al Gore as a compassionate conservative, but his real opponent was Clinton, whose private behavior with Monica Lewinsky remained the elephant in the Oval Office.

If Eugene McCarthy had been nominated by the Democrats in 1968, whether elected or not, the homogenization of the two major parties would have been delayed, if not prevented altogether. Substance would still have mattered, because McCarthy would have established a precedent for deciding elections on what was right to do, not what was wrong to be. He would have dealt with negative advertising as Lincoln handled the cruel political cartoons that ridiculed him during the Civil War…with a wry smile and a literate witticism that disarmed the attacker. It might or might not have won him the presidency, but it would have set a lasting example.

Unfortunately, there’s no Eugene McCarthy or Adlai Stevenson around today. What we have instead are confused politicians who know what’s wrong with the other guy, yet find it impossible to frame negative and partisan thoughts into a credible philosophical stance.