Remembering Eugene McCarthy

When I read that Gene McCarthy died on December 10, I remembered how he had called me last year after I wrote about him in The Nation. I had said he was "a mysterious and frustrating figure," and that "nothing he did before 1968 hinted that he would become the liberals' antiwar leader ... and nothing he did after 1968 accomplished much of anything." (The piece was a review of a biography by Dominic Sandbrook,"No Success Like Failure," which was published May 3, 2004.)

McCarthy made history in 1968 when he became the only Democrat with the courage to mount an antiwar challenge to LBJ's reelection. His victory in the New Hampshire primary in February 1968 was the brightest moment of a campaign that soon turned dark, with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June and the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.

But I couldn't forget the critique of the 1968 McCarthy campaign made by my father, a good Minnesota Democrat. Look at how the 1968 campaign ended, he said: McCarthy split the Democrats, Nixon won in November, and he kept the war going for another five years. Fifteen thousand more Americans were killed, and -- we might add -- Americans killed something like a million more Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.

I replied that Humphrey was to blame for failing to adopt an antiwar position and thereby losing the election.

The mystery of Gene McCarthy was that before 1968 he had never been a maverick, a rebel or a peacenik. Throughout his career in the House and Senate before 1968, he had been a conventional cold war liberal, a fierce anti-Communist. His transformation into the standard-bearer of the liberal antiwar movement is one of the great stories in American politics.

The other great mystery is what happened to him after 1968, when McCarthy began a long downhill slide into what Sandbrook called "irrelevance and obscurity." He ran for President again and again, getting fewer votes each time. He fought in the courts to get independent candidates on the ballot, and his success paved the way for Ross Perot and then Ralph Nader in 2000. It was not a happy picture.

Garry Wills said it best: "Eugene McCarthy spent a good deal of his time trying to prove that he was too good for politics. What use was that? Most of us are too good for politics; but we do not make a career of demonstrating it."

I ended my piece with that quote. A few days after it appeared, I got a voice mail: "Jon, this is Senator McCarthy in Washington. I'd like to talk to you about your piece in The Nation."

When I called him back, he said, "Your piece was pretty good. I appreciated your taking it up. This Sandbrook says I'm guilty of every capital sin except avarice. Who am I going to get to defend me? Most of them are dead. Sandbrook says even my poetry is no good. Should I reply that some poets thought some of it is okay?"

We chatted about friends of my family in St. Paul who had worked with him in the old days; then it was time to go. "If you don't mind," he said, "I'll send you a copy of the testimonials from when I left the Senate. Twelve or fifteen people there said I was a pretty decent guy."

But in New Hampshire in February 1968, he was more than a decent guy -- he was a true hero of the antiwar movement. That's the Gene McCarthy I want to remember today.

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