Eugene McCarthy was Central Casting's version of how a senator or president looked. He stood over six feet, with silver hair swept back, and he carried himself with a regal bearing. Well-versed in classic literature and with urbane manners, he read and wrote poetry, but any highbrow comparison ended there. He grew up a farm boy in Watkins, Minnesota (population 760) playing baseball and ice hockey. After high school and college, he worked at a variety of jobs, joined a monastery briefly, and later returned to his alma mater as an economics and sociology professor.
McCarthy's political entry was fortuitous. Because nobody else wanted the job, he accepted the local Democratic Party's county chairmanship. In 1948 he won a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives, which was the same year his fellow Minnesotan, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, won election to the U.S. Senate.
In Congress, McCarthy proved himself the ultimate anti-politician. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. observed that McCarthy admired poets, but he showed contempt for his colleagues. Others noted that he felt it beneath himself to engage in the ritualistic glad-handing, fundraising, and support-seeking of retail politics.
McCarthy joined Humphrey in the Senate in 1958, but the chamber's slow pace and stodgy formalities bored him. He mocked the Senate publicly, calling it, "The last primitive society left on earth," and he compared its traditions to a savage New Guinea settlement: "Both societies are obsessed with seniority, taboos, and precedent. In that regard, the Senate is like a leper colony." He tweaked senior colleagues publicly and they reciprocated his disdain. Despite a decade of seniority, he never gained (nor wanted) admittance to the Senate's insider club. Among those who found McCarthy's shtick less than sincere was Humphrey, who later described him as "handsome, witty, teacher, poet, Irish mystic, and a clever politician—cleverer for denying it…. Gene is more vain and arrogant than his admirers want to admit[.]"
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By late 1967, with bloodshed in Vietnam raging for over three years, antiwar activist Allard Lowenstein concluded that collecting signatures on "end the war" petitions at various colleges was a meaningless protest. Instead he sought to recruit an intraparty challenger to the war's root cause, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his expected 1968 reelection bid. Lowenstein calculated that a nationwide movement might mobilize around a "peace" candidate. With no money, and working off old antiwar mailing lists, he launched his "Dump Johnson" drive. The likelihood of success was so remote that the proposition seemed absurd to all but a handful of like-minded objectors.
Lowenstein lobbied Senator Robert F. Kennedy repeatedly to take on the incumbent president of his own Democratic Party. Each time RFK rebuffed him and insisted that nobody could stop Johnson. Kennedy not only refused to run, but he said that if an antiwar challenger surfaced, he would probably endorse Johnson. In desperation Lowenstein went down his short list of antiwar Democratic senators and asked each to run. They laughed off the proposition for the same reason RFK gave: Johnson was unbeatable. Senator George McGovern also refused to run, but as an afterthought he suggested that Lowenstein go and talk to McCarthy.
Soon thereafter, McGovern ran into McCarthy and apologized for siccing Lowenstein on him with such a wacky idea. McCarthy brushed off the apology, saying that he had talked to Lowenstein and, to McGovern's astonishment, he added casually, "I think I may do it."
In retrospect, McCarthy's cavalier decision to run for president fit his persona. If the road to New Hampshire—the first 1968 primary state—appeared a discouragingly lonely one for an insurgent outsider, who better to trod it than the political world's biggest loner?
McCarthy's campaign style drove his staff mad. He entered the race at the end of November 1967, but he didn't bother showing up to campaign in New Hampshire until two months later—only six weeks before the crucial March 12th vote. When he finally sauntered up there, he campaigned with such indifference that reporters dismissed his effort as a joke. He cancelled events arbitrarily and at the last minute. Once a huge audience gathered in an auditorium for his heavily promoted speech. On the way there McCarthy blithely told his driver to take him back to the hotel. He just didn't feel like talking politics that evening; he felt like writing poetry instead. On another occasion an aide arrived early one morning to pick up the candidate for a packed schedule. McCarthy was gone, having left instructions to cancel all of that day's events. Why? McCarthy had discovered that there was a nearby monastery, so he decided to blow off the campaign to go there and meditate all day. Then there was the time his staff set up a private meet-and-greet with local bigwigs; McCarthy arrived to find over a hundred prominent people anxious to see him. He entered the room, shook a few hands, and then he turned to an aide and said, "Okay, I'm bored now." With that, he blew past everyone in the ballroom, walked over to the bar and ordered a drink, and he remained there until the room emptied. The day a wealthy donor arrived at McCarthy's campaign office to deliver a personal check for $10,000—a monumental sum in 1968—the candidate refused to walk down the hall to thank him. He explained to his flabbergasted manager that since the donor was giving money to a cause, and not to McCarthy personally, the donor shouldn't expect any thanks.
And so it went.
Still, there was something about McCarthy's aloofness and contempt for the political rulebook that created its own bizarre appeal. As one former colleague remembered, when Gene was "on," nobody was more articulate and elegant. And when it came to expressing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he was at his best.
During those six weeks leading to the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy's message began resonating with college students across America, many of whom faced impending military induction notices because of Johnson's continued war escalation. First dozens, and then hundreds, and finally thousands of them rode buses or hitchhiked east. When they arrived at his headquarters they cut their long hair, put on conservative clothes, and blanketed every New Hampshire neighborhood on his behalf. The now-common nationwide mobilization of students on college campuses for liberal causes began with the McCarthy phenomenon—dubbed by the press back then as "The Children's Crusade."
When New Hampshire voted, the nonconformist senator came within 200 votes of outpolling Johnson statewide, which sent shockwaves across the political establishment. A few days later Robert Kennedy reversed course and jumped into the race against LBJ. His last-minute entry infuriated McCarthy's supporters. They viewed RFK's earlier refusal to run as cowardly, and his sudden entry as an opportunistic and selfish act guaranteeing to split the peace vote.
Two weeks later, and facing more humiliation with an outright defeat by McCarthy in the upcoming Wisconsin primary, Johnson stunned the nation and announced he would not seek reelection. With LBJ bowing out, McCarthy's erstwhile friend Hubert Humphrey (now LBJ's vice president) entered the race, but he was too late to file for the remaining primary contests. Thus, the battle across the primary map was fought between the two peace candidates—McCarthy and Kennedy—and the warfare between them grew increasingly bitter right up to Kennedy's assassination the night of the California primary in early June.
With the almost unanimous support of the Party establishment, Humphrey beat McCarthy for the presidential nomination. Following the Democratic National Convention, McCarthy shattered both tradition and expectations by refusing to endorse Humphrey until (literally) the closing hours of the fall campaign. Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon, and he blamed his agonizingly narrow defeat on McCarthy. Humphrey believed that an early endorsement would have motivated McCarthy's tens of thousands of disillusioned young followers to turn out for the Democratic ticket. For his part, McCarthy found it hard, as a matter of intellectual integrity, to ask his legions of draft–age antiwar supporters to go out and work for the man who had been Johnson's foremost Vietnam War cheerleader for the last four years.
McCarthy retired from the Senate in January 1971, but in December of that year he announced that he would seek the presidency in 1972. Again directing his message to his strongest base of support—the college campuses—he scheduled a visit to the College of Marin on February 19, 1972. However, in keeping to his quirky style, he did not bill his appearance as a campaign event. Instead, his campaign listed it as a chance to hear him read poetry selections.
I was 14 years old at the time. Along with my younger brother Pat, we took the bus from Pinole to the Santa Rosa campus—a three-hour one-way ordeal. When we arrived at the Fine Arts Theater box office two hours before McCarthy's scheduled 7:00 p.m. visit, we were the only people in line to buy $2 tickets, and we remained so until the box office opened 30 minutes before the event began.
When the doors opened, an usher collected each ticket and tore them in half. I prevailed upon him to let me keep mine for my political memorabilia collection It was the only one to survive the mass destruction. Because we were first in line, Pat and I secured the best seats in the house: front row center.
The program began with poetry readings from a local author. During this presentation, I saw McCarthy appear in the darkened stage wings. He looked tired and kept rubbing his eyes. When introduced, he walked out and received a standing ovation.
During his hour-long poetry reading, McCarthy was unable to conceal his fatigue: he yawned, faltered on his lines occasionally, and rubbed his eyes frequently. From my seat, I raised my $10 plastic Kodak Instamatic camera and snapped a picture of the candidate. A long-haired flower child left over from the 1960s seated next to me turned and growled, "Hey, man, can't you see your goddamned flashbulb is bothering Gene's eyes? Knock it off, man."
"Get a haircut, hippie," my young brother replied.
The snapshot I took that set off the hippie seated next to me: McCarthy delivering his poetry reading, College of Marin, February 19, 1972
Earlier in the evening, while we waited in the ticket line, I had overheard the theater employee also mention that McCarthy would tape an interview in an upstairs classroom following his public reading. As he appeared to be wrapping up his auditorium presentation, Pat and I exited the theater and wandered the darkened hall looking for the door to the classrooms. Opening and walking through a door that I thought was an exit, I found myself on stage with McCarthy, who stood only a few feet away! He did not notice the intrusion as I backed up and closed the door softly.
When his poetry reading ended, McCarthy appeared backstage. Other than a student escort, he had no entourage. We followed as a student escorted him to the upstairs classroom for his interview. He emerged twenty minutes later looking drained. We walked with him to the parking lot where his driver awaited. Before squeezing his long, lanky frame into the subcompact car, he shook hands with us, thanked us for coming, passed out small "Gene Lives" campaign buttons, and he signed and dated for me my salvaged admission ticket to his poetry reading session. As the presidential candidate drove off into the night, I noticed that the sticker on the bumper of his car bore an old and fading 1968 legend: "McCarthy for President."
Campaign button given to me by Eugene McCarthy, February 19, 1972
I took this photograph of McCarthy and a fellow poet in the Marin College college classroom after McCarthy completed his interview, February 19, 1972. McCarthy autographed it for me a few months later when we met again.
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Early 1972 polls showed McCarthy maintaining substantial Democrat support from his 1968 effort, but those figures never translated into primary victories once he entered the race. By late May of that year, he had withdrawn from the contest. The 1968 primary season was McCarthy's political high-water mark. In later years, he ran for the presidency three more times: in 1976, 1988, and 1992. These later national efforts went largely (and increasingly) unnoticed. Still the rebel, in 1980 he endorsed Republican challenger Ronald Reagan over incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, explaining that Carter was too incompetent to remain as president. When he sought to reclaim his Minnesota Senate seat in a 1982 comeback, he received a mere twenty-four percent of the Democratic primary vote.
McCarthy retired to his home in the Virginia countryside, wrote books, gave public poetry readings, and spoke out for his various causes until declining health sidelined him. He died of complications from Parkinson's disease at age eighty-nine on December 10, 2005.
Today, few people below the Medicare eligibility age remember Gene McCarthy. But over a half century ago, in his 1968 campaign against Lyndon Johnson, he lit a powder keg that changed the dynamic of American politics, and along the way he midwifed a modern progressive movement that still resonates with millions of voters.
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