Monday, January 3, 2011

Gene McCarthy Runs for President, 1968

It is now forty-three years since Sen. Eugene McCarthy launched his quixotic quest for the presidency. The whirlpool of Vietnam was about to ensnare President Lyndon Johnson, and the anti-war McCarthy helped bring that about.

The number of troops in Vietnam had more than doubled over the previous two years and stood at about a half-million men at the beginning of 1968. For those who lived through that period, as I did, it seemed that 1968 signaled an unraveling of the nation. While the many protests were driven by young activists, few could ignore the turmoil.

McCarthy seemed an unlikely figurehead for such a movement. A one-time prospective Benedictine monk, the 51-year-old former college professor was cerebral and aloof. A stalwart of the Democratic-Farm-Labor party in Minnesota, McCarthy coveted LBJ’s vice-presidential selection only four years earlier, losing out to his colleague and one-time mentor, Hubert Humphrey.

Dubbed “Clean Gene” by the media, by 1967 the quirky McCarthy was the most visible Democratic officeholder willing to ramp up his criticism of the war and pound Johnson and the administration. McCarthy was willing to fill the anti-war leadership vacuum.

The first political test was the New Hampshire primary in March, and one of the key events impacting the political world was the unexpected Tet Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese in late January. This bloodbath was captured on television—as were other battle scenes—and even the calming voice of Walter Cronkite could not relax the growing unease in American living rooms.

Undoubtedly, the pivotal early political event of 1968 was McCarthy’s astounding vote total in the New Hampshire primary.  Today this an important quadrennial canvass but it was even more so in those days before the Iowa caucuses and the various straw polls. On March 12, McCarthy garnered 42 percent in the Democratic primary against the incumbent President, technically losing by seven points but clearly achieving a huge tactical victory.

I still remember as a high-school senior listening to Johnson’s television address two and one-half weeks later when he announced that he would not run for reelection. I was stunned, as were millions of others of all political stripes.

McCarthy set the political dominos in motion. A previously reluctant Robert F. Kennedy, the junior senator from New York, saw an opening with both the anti-war fervor and Johnson’s departure. Candidate Kennedy had the stature, access to money and charisma to eclipse the progress that McCarthy had made.

Over the next several months, the United States experienced several traumatic events, notably the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April; the assassination of Kennedy in June; and the tumultuous Democratic convention at Chicago in August. Humphrey gained the politically-tainted nomination and, although he eventually broke with Johnson on the war, lost the November election to Richard Nixon by a whisker.

McCarthy served the remaining two years of his Senate term but never held public office again. He had abortive presidential campaigns in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992. In later years he turned to writing and poetry and died in 2005. Although the apogee of his career came in 1968, his impact on mid-20th-century politics was significant.

Listen to Peter Paul & Mary on McCarthy:

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