A Good Jake

The Passing of a Champion

The world is full of politicians, pundits and other actors who go to great lengths to be seen as advocates of the common man. Many even aspire to be seen as common men (or women) themselves.

Most of them -- no, make that us -- see much nobility in these idealistic pursuits. We are proud to be advocates of the "little guy," though deep down inside, we don't really want to be little guys (at least not when it comes to having "stuff" or public acclaim).

Jake McCarthy was different. Jake McCarthy, champion of the common man, was the real deal.

McCarthy died at age 74 last week, leaving behind a legacy that can't be claimed by many: He always stayed true to his beliefs; he never forgot where he came from.

RFT readers remember McCarthy for his highly personal and passionate columns, which he penned from 1991-99. And I do mean penned: It was not unusual for his prose to be scribbled out on a legal pad, as he sat on a barstool, before somehow making it through the technological jungle that McCarthy neither liked nor trusted.

Writing in these pages, McCarthy was one of the last unabashed and unapologetic liberals, a New Deal Democrat who never stopped beating the drum for the causes of organized labor, minorities, the poor, prisoners and others left behind by those of us in the yuppie-friendly boomer generation. He even stood up, proudly, for the IRA (the Irish rebels, not the retirement plan).

Though McCarthy saved his toughest language for the so-called Religious Right and others he saw as extremist conservatives, there was no hesitation to criticize political correctness, welfare reform, bloated military spending and other New Democrat passions. He pulled no punches in his disdain for what he termed the "me-first generation."

But it wasn't always about heavy ideology. In one revealing column, McCarthy pilloried the Center for Science in the Public Interest -- an "outfit hell-bent on removing fat and joy from the American scene" -- for guidelines on healthy eating that McCarthy saw as "attacking the institution of breakfast."

He concluded: "No wonder civility and graciousness are becoming so rare as to be considered surprising, as those who worry about themselves have begun to worry so much about others. Worry itself can make a person mean. It can certainly ruin all the fun."

I picked that excerpt, from one of the more than 360 (mostly more intense) columns McCarthy wrote for us, because I think it provides a couple of important insights into who he was.

Jake McCarthy was never mean. And he was always fun.

The RFT stint was but the last of what McCarthy described as four careers. His journey started with a colorful 16-year run with the Teamsters Union -- highlighted by four years in Washington as Jimmy Hoffa's spokesman -- that culminated with a position editing the union's national magazine and then what McCarthy remembered as "a pretty good labor newspaper here."

Then there was a volatile 11-year career as an outspoken liberal columnist for the Post-Dispatch, which (as McCarthy recalled in these pages four years ago) started under a managing editor "who knew how to give a man his own voice" and ended under one who "finally denied me that right." Then, for almost a decade, he owned a rock & roll club in a California college town.

And that's not the half of McCarthy's journey. He lived among the beatniks in Greenwich Village in the '50s and among the hippies in San Francisco in the early '70s. Between those eras, he took part in the civil-rights and peace movements in the '60s. He had quite a life.

As they say in baseball, Jake McCarthy never got cheated out of his swings.

Friend and foe remember him fondly. Politically, his polar opposite was Martin Duggan, provocateur of KETC-TV's Donnybrook and four-decade veteran of the late Globe-Democrat, including a tenure as editorial-page editor while McCarthy was writing 180 degrees away for the Post.

"I liked Jake immensely despite our differences because he was so gregarious, so likable, such a very good person," Duggan said Tuesday. "He was the kind of guy you'd enjoy having a drink with under any circumstances."

Duggan recalled that even before McCarthy's tumultuous Post tenure, he had made quite a name for himself as "a very forceful figure in the labor movement, a highly respected force to be reckoned with." McCarthy would like that compliment, but not as much as this one, also paid by Duggan:

"Frankly, I never thought too much of his columns," Duggan, ever the archconservative, told me.

I'm sure McCarthy wouldn't have had it any other way.

On the allied side, no compliment could be higher than that paid McCarthy by his old pal and colleague, Post writer John M. McGuire.

"Jake had a soul," McGuire said Tuesday. "He never deviated from his beliefs; he never wavered. I'm in awe of him."

On turning 70 just over four years ago, McCarthy wrote in the RFT that he did so "with the very humble sense of having been a very lucky man at the gambling table of life, and very blessed before the altar of my beliefs."

Then he offered some insight into how he came to be what he was all about: "As I have written before, escaping death in World War II seems to have put a special mark on my generation, a sort of reprieve that meant we could pursue certain causes to make a better world."

In late 1990, just before returning to St. Louis from his California bar experience, McCarthy was the subject of a brief Sunday P-D magazine piece by McGuire. It reported: "One day, McCarthy and his children were talking about the inevitable. 'As the conversation ensued, it appeared preferable that I should return to St. Louis while still alive so as to minimize shipping costs.'"

Vintage Jake.

But cost savings notwithstanding, we're all a little poorer now that Jake McCarthy, uncommon champion of the common man, is gone.

They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Scroll to read more Hartmann articles


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.