Cook On Concord: The world says goodbye to a priest and a poet

Two men who had a great effect on America and New Hampshire in the second half of the 20th century died in early December. One was a priest. The other a poet (and politician.)

Philip Kenney, a Roman Catholic monsignor, gave his entire life to helping New Hampshire’s people spiritually, socially and was a leader in speaking out for justice and peace.

His statements about the Vietnam War and in favor of social and racial justice and other matters earned him the criticism of conservative politicians and the Union Leader.

Things that today seem to have helped shaped present-day America positively were in those days “radical” and controversial. Monsignor Kenney went to the South to march in civil rights demonstrations, believing that justice was his calling and witness.

He died at age 90, a resident of the diocese’s Bishop Peterson Residence for retired priests.

Once, after heading up the effort to provide housing within the diocese and convert the former Carpenter Hotel into the Carpenter Center residences, he called the lawyer who had worked on the matter in reference to an unpaid bill and said, “Do you remember the story of Robin Hood?” The bill was cancelled.

Monsignor Kenney touched Catholics, Protestants, Jews and all whom he met as an excellent witness for God, justice, peace. His passing was a significant loss.

As with many others, those who remembered him in his last years as a “nice old man,” were certainly correct, but they had not experienced the dynamic leadership and fervor the young Phil Kenney brought to all his endeavors.

Someone once mentioned what a good bishop Monsignor Kenney would have made. Upon hearing that observation, another person who knew him said, “He couldn’t take the demotion.”


Also passing away was former Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. For those who came of age politically in the late 1960s, whether Republican or Democrat, Senator McCarthy was a significant and unique figure.

In 1967, Senator McCarthy, concerned about the Vietnam War and troubled by its effect on young people, eventually presented himself as an alternative to President Lyndon Johnson, who had been considered unstoppable after his landslide victory in 1964.

Then, as now (and hopefully in the future), the New Hampshire primary was first. A large number of college students came to the Granite State to campaign for Senator McCarthy. He was a different kind of candidate. He gave wistful and philosophical speeches, not shrill and partisan, while decrying the war and rallying his young followers. His movement took shape.

Johnson, having assumed he would be unopposed, was not even on the ballot. At the time, individual delegates were listed on the ballot and there was only a “straw poll” for president. Johnson’s forces miscalculated and put more delegates on the ballot than they had spots, rewarding loyal workers with the chance to have their names listed.

When the votes were counted, neither McCarthy nor Johnson had 50 percent of the vote, but their virtual tie was the equivalent of an earthquake. McCarthy had the most delegates.

On election night, McCarthy’s troops gathered at the then-Sheraton Wayfarer and celebrated. I was there, since in one room in another part of the hotel, the supporters of a write-in for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller met briefly and disbursed, having failed to upset Richard Nixon in the primary.

Wandering into the convention center at the Wayfarer, an explosion of noise and enthusiasm, celebration, speeches, movie stars and the candidate himself greeted my eyes. I knew something was going on, and indeed it was.

On March 30, 1968, in the wake of the primary, Lyndon Johnson announced to the nation, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

New York Senator Robert Kennedy entered the race after McCarthy’s New Hampshire showing, and McCarthy went on, not winning many more primaries. Kennedy was killed after he won the California primary in June. McCarthy’s fellow Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey, won the nomination and lost to Nixon.

McCarthy went on to run for president several more times, to write poetry, often appear on television, teach and became an elder statesman.

Upon hearing of his death, many commentators recalled the turbulent 1968 election and what Eugene McCarthy did for his country and, especially, its young people. Many observers wondered where the philosophers and poets have gone, as none seem apparent in elective office today.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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