Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Eugene McCarthy, RIP

Eugene McCarthy has passed on -- once again with very little media coverage; this time for the last time.

A number of key UCSB student leaders were in the McCarthy campaign in 1968, so, in a sense, you could say that the leftist bent to late 1960's and early 1970's politics at the University of California Santa Barbara campus had its foundation in the McCarthy campaign...


By any measure, 1968 was a horrific year. An endless war in Southeast Asia. The toppling of a sitting president. The assassinations of a civil rights leader and a presidential candidate. A nation torn apart on race and war and culture. It was one of those benchmark years that people who lived through it will remember forever. And when you think of 1968, you also remember Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic senator from Minnesota, whose presidential candidacy was based on opposition to the war in Vietnam and who helped bring down a president.

McCarthy was a reluctant national figure, to say the least. He was not a showboat; he looked more comfortable reading poetry than drawing attention to himself. And he was not one of the earliest opponents of the war. For example, in 1964 he voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that essentially gave the Johnson administration carte blanche authority to wage war in Vietnam (only two senators -- and no House members -- voted against it). But once McCarthy broke with President Lyndon Johnson on the war, in 1966, he never turned back. For months, McCarthy publicly urged that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) challenge Johnson for the nomination; for his part, Kennedy always said he wouldn't run and that he intended to back LBJ for re-election. Finally, with the war dragging on, the casualties mounting, and no one else willing to step forward, McCarthy made it official. And even as he announced his candidacy, on Nov. 30, 1967, he still said that he hoped that Bobby Kennedy would get in the race.

In the winter of 1967-68, all eyes were on the New Hampshire primary. Gov. John King (D), who led the pro-Johnson forces in the state, said McCarthy was the "spokesman for the forces of appeasement," one who advocated "a policy of surrender which would destroy everything we have been fighting for." King opined, "The people most interested in the results of this election are Ho Chi Minh and his Communist friends," and that a sizable vote total for McCarthy would be "greeted with great cheers in Hanoi." (King at one point said he thought McCarthy would get about 12 percent of the vote.)

That Johnson won the New Hampshire primary was not a surprise; he had the party machinery, the money and the endorsements all in his favor. That he won with just 49 percent of the vote -- compared to McCarthy's 42 percent -- was a surprise. In fact, it was a stunning repudiation of a president and his war policy. And it was carried out by the unlikeliest of political figures, leading an unlikely army of college students who decided to "Clean for Gene" -- shave, shower, clean up their acts -- and toil in the snows of New Hampshire to spread their message.

(Where Are They Now Department: McCarthy staffers at the time included press secretary Seymour Hersh, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with The New Yorker; political director Curtis Gans, currently the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University; and finance committee co-chair Martin Peretz, who has been editor-in-chief of The New Republic since 1974.)

The satisfaction McCarthy may have gotten for his strong showing lasted less than 24 hours. One day after the primary, Kennedy announced he was "actively reconsidering" his decision not to run. And three days after that -- on March 16, 1968 -- Kennedy made his candidacy official. He said he feared from the beginning that challenging Johnson would have made it look personal; his enmity for the president was no secret. Kennedy said that McCarthy's showing in New Hampshire made it clear that Democrats were losing confidence in the Johnson administration. He insisted he was not out to divide the antiwar wing of the party. "In no state will my efforts be directed against Sen. McCarthy," he said. But for those who joined McCarthy's crusade after having given up on the hope that Kennedy would run, it was an act of betrayal. And it made McCarthy a bitter candidate.

Fifteen days later, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing he would not run for a second term.

McCarthy was never able to capitalize. He spent the next few months campaigning as much against Kennedy as he did against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who became the choice of the party establishment after Johnson's withdrawal. He beat Kennedy in Oregon in late May. In early June, Kennedy turned the tables on McCarthy by winning in California -- only to be assassinated within minutes of declaring victory.

Although Humphrey got in the race after the filing deadlines for every remaining primary had passed, and thus never won a single primary, he went on to easily win the Democratic nomination. But the cost to the party was enormous. Antiwar demonstrators outside the Chicago convention clashed with and were beaten by the Chicago police. The entire spectacle showed a party in chaos, and it had a big role in assuring the election of Richard Nixon in November. McCarthy refused to endorse Humphrey until very late in the campaign.

Retiring from the Senate after 1970, McCarthy again sought the Democratic nomination in 1972 but was not a factor. As the years went by, he became even more of a Democratic outsider. He ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1976. In 1980, McCarthy endorsed Ronald Reagan over President Jimmy Carter. He even sought the presidency again in 1988.

If you ever got to speak to McCarthy in later years, it always seemed like you were in a time machine. The conflict, the drama, the personal slights of 1968 were never far from the surface. And the conversation rarely was about Vietnam or Lyndon Johnson. It was almost always about Bobby Kennedy.

In 1968 Eugene McCarthy was an imperfect candidate leading an improbable cause. He didn't get the nomination and he didn't end the war. But he stepped forward when antiwar forces needed him the most.

NPR text : Remembering Eugene McCarthy

NPR audio : Audio recap of McCarthy's political life

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