He was, in a sense, the Howard Dean of 1968, but of course, that does no justice to McCarthy’s wit (he had lots; Dean has none). But both men ran for president as Democratic anti-war candidates, and both inspired thousands of students to take an active part in politics.
McCarthy ran for President in 1968 on a single issue — he wanted the U.S. out of Vietnam. Dean likewise wanted the U.S. out of Iraq in 2004. The question for McCarthy then and Dean now is this: If you achieve your goal, then what?
McCarthy’s goal was to get the troops out as fast as possible. Dean has the same goal today. One could argue, though, that the stakes this time are very different. We eventually did as McCarthy suggested, withdrawing from Vietnam in 1975. Three decades later, Vietnam is an active trading partner of the United States, and while not an ally, is hardly an enemy.
It is doubtful that a similar result will be obtained with the Islamic terrorist network 30 years from now.
In any case, Eugene McCarthy’s moment was 1968, an awful year the likes of which we would not wish on our worst enemies. It was the year Martin Luther King was murdered, and then Robert F. Kennedy. It was the year when police clashed with protesters at the Democratic National Convention, when the sitting President of the United States could not attend his party’s convention tribute on his birthday for fear of sparking violent demonstrations.
McCarthy, an Irish-Catholic from Minnesota who briefly considered entering the priesthood, was the sort of politician who could never make it in today’s slick, television-driven national political debate. He was too thoughtful for the nightly food fights that clutter cable television news channels, and too persnickety for the Sunday morning shows.
He wrote poetry, in fact, one of his closest friends was the poet Robert Lowell, who once noted that McCarthy inspired more applause at the beginning of his speeches than he did at the end — they were often tedious affairs, designed for the true believers in his company, but not written to win new converts. There was a sense that McCarthy wasn’t altogether interested in winning over the hearts and minds of masses of voters. Like the Old Testament prophets, he had a message to deliver and didn’t particularly care whether that message made him popular or not.
This is not a particularly efficient way of winning elections. But it certainly is one way to be remembered as a politician cut from a different cloth.
There is no question that Eugene McCarthy relished his image as a maverick. Indeed, only such a character would have had the gumption to challenge an incumbent president from his own party — Lyndon Johnson — and drive him from the race.
McCarthy’s strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary — he didn’t win the primary, as many people think — led to Johnson’s decision to forfeit re-election. And that decision led Robert F. Kennedy to join the race, leading him to a hotel ballroom in Los Angeles in June, where he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan.
It’s interesting to note McCarthy’s relationship with those other prominent Irish Catholics of the time, the Kennedys.
In a phrase, McCarthy’s relationship with the family was, well, something less than friendly.
In 1960, as John F. Kennedy made history by becoming only the second Catholic to win a major party presidential nomination, McCarthy was an active supporter of two-time loser Adlai Stevenson, who had been defeated by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.
Stevenson was the darling of the party’s liberal wing, and was considered the last best hope of stopping Kennedy at the convention.
McCarthy gave the convention’s second-best speech (the best being Kennedy’s “New Frontier” acceptance speech), a stem-winder on Stevenson’s behalf, urging delegates not to turn their backs on the man from Illinois. Watching this performance and the demonstration it inspired on the convention floor, some Kennedy aides were worried that the tide had turned and that JFK might yet be denied the nomination.
In the candidate’s suite, however, McCarthy’s speech and the cheers it inspired were viewed with professional detachment. Stevenson, John Kennedy observed, simply didn’t have enough votes.
So he didn’t, and McCarthy’s speech couldn’t change that simple fact.
Eight years later, McCarthy once again found himself on the other side of a Kennedy presidential campaign. And if he resented John Kennedy’s candidacy in 1960, he had never more reason to resent his brother’s. Without McCarthy’s performance in New Hampshire, it is hard to imagine Robert Kennedy’s challenge for the nomination.
In short, McCarthy was there first, and when Kennedy got into the race, McCarthy’s followers were livid. They were, after all, true believers. Once Johnson was out of the race, they seemed to believe their man was entitled to the nomination.
Politics, of course, doesn’t recognize such entitlements, not when the presidency is at stake. The young people who supported McCarthy didn’t understand that. But the Kennedys certainly did.
And so the stage was set for unspeakable tragedy: Robert Kennedy joins the race, beats McCarthy in several primaries, culminating in California, and then is shot in the head in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.
McCarthy did not get the nomination Kennedy sought. It was delivered to another distinguished citizen of Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey, who went on to lose to Nixon.
McCarthy’s moment faded, and so did he, sort of. He ran for the presidency periodically after 1968, summoning only nostalgia among a shrinking group of supporters. He then retired to write poetry.
It is not disrespectful to hope that his country does not re-live 1968 — his most-famous moment — any time soon.