Eugene McCarthy; Candidacy Inspired Antiwar Movement
Former Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy (D-Minn.), whose surprisingly strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary dramatized deepening public opposition to the Vietnam War and effectively ended President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political career, died Saturday. He was 89.
McCarthy died at a retirement home in the Georgetown section of Washington, where he had lived for several years.
“McCarthy essentially knocked Johnson out of the race,” Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin, coauthor of “America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s,” told The Times on Saturday. “McCarthy made it politically palatable to start moving toward ending the war.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called McCarthy “a man of compassion and a tremendous figure in the Democratic Party.”
“He dedicated his life to public service and made an enormous difference for the people of Minnesota and the entire United States,” Reid said. “Though he left the Senate many years ago, he remained an important, respected voice in our nation.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose late brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) vied against McCarthy for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, said Saturday: “In spite of the rivalry with Bobby in the 1968 campaign, I admired Gene enormously for his courage in challenging a war America never should have fought.
“His life speaks volumes to us today as we face a similar critical time for our country,” Kennedy said, alluding to the war in Iraq.
Former Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), who won the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination when McCarthy ran a second time, said McCarthy’s presidential run in 1968 dramatically changed the antiwar movement from “a movement of concerned citizens” to “a national political movement.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a volunteer in McCarthy’s 1968 campaign and a co-founder two years later of an antiwar group called the Marin Alternative, said: “During the Vietnam War, Eugene McCarthy had the courage to stand up and be a voice for peace. He will always be remembered for that.”
Political scientist Steven S. Smith of Washington University in St. Louis told The Times on Saturday that McCarthy “remains the most important national symbol of the peace movement and the view that the U.S. reverts to the use of force too quickly. No one has symbolized that in American politics like McCarthy has.”
McCarthy, a relatively obscure senator who turned against the war as the United States escalated its troop buildup in the mid-1960s, entered the New Hampshire presidential primary partly to fill a vacuum: Antiwar politicians who were more prominent assumed that Johnson was unbeatable and decided not to challenge him.
McCarthy’s candidacy initially was dismissed as quixotic. Johnson’s biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that the challenge “was regarded by official Washington as a somewhat baffling exercise begun by a hitherto stable member of the Senate liberal establishment.”
But McCarthy’s campaign caught fire with young people -- the vanguard of opposition to the Vietnam War -- and hordes of them traveled to New Hampshire to help his cause. They stuffed envelopes and passed out leaflets in what was dubbed “the children’s crusade.” Many cut their long hair and put on fresh clothes to help impress older voters. Be “Clean for Gene,” their watchword urged.
Johnson had not yet formally declared his candidacy, so his name was not on the primary ballot. But it was widely assumed he would seek reelection, and New Hampshire Democratic leaders organized a write-in campaign for him, fully expecting a win.
Johnson did win -- but not easily. He garnered 49% of the vote, McCarthy 42%. The results shocked analysts, showed that the president was vulnerable, and jolted other politicians into action.
Four days later, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who earlier had decided against seeking the nomination, reversed himself and jumped into the race. Two weeks after that, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing he would not seek a second term.
McCarthy’s glory was short-lived. Kennedy captured much of the momentum that had been propelling the McCarthy campaign, and the laconic Minnesotan proved unable to sufficiently expand his base of support. Some placed part of the blame on his diffident campaign style. The poet Robert Lowell said of his friend McCarthy: “The last thing he wanted to do was to be charismatic. He was a mixture of proud contempt and modest distaste.... Usually the cheers were greater when he came in than when he finished speaking.”
Kennedy scored a major triumph when he won the California primary in early June, but that night he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after delivering his victory speech. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey -- a Minnesotan who had served in the Senate with McCarthy -- went on to claim the Democratic nomination. Humphrey narrowly lost the November election to Republican Richard M. Nixon.
Truculent as well as contrarian, McCarthy abruptly decided not to seek reelection to the Senate in 1970, disappointing many supporters who hoped he would use his office to continue to push for an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Humphrey reentered the Senate by winning the election to succeed McCarthy.
McCarthy ran for president in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992 but never came close to recapturing the constituency he had originally forged in New Hampshire.
Still, historians regard his 1968 candidacy as a turning point: a campaign that focused Americans’ previously scattered opposition to the war and pushed successive administrations to try to extricate U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. It also stands as one of the most vivid examples of successful grass-roots activism in U.S. politics.
It also helped inspire an overhaul of the political process, particularly within the Democratic Party. After antiwar demonstrations disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention, damaging the party politically, Democratic leaders revamped party rules to pare back the power of political professionals to determine candidates and platforms.
“It opened the way for major changes in the party that pushed it toward the left and enabled Republicans to capture the White House through most of the next several elections,” said Marshall Wittmann, a 1968 McCarthy volunteer and now a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in Washington.
McCarthy never overcame his bitterness toward Robert F. Kennedy, whom he believed had exploited the New Hampshire results for his own political gain, detracting from the broader antiwar campaign.
Once he entered the race, McCarthy said later, “we weren’t able to run the kind of campaign we wanted to, which was to focus on the issue of the war.”
Much of McCarthy’s last two decades was spent in rural Woodville, Va., about 65 miles west of Washington. He bought a rebuilt 18th century stone-and-clapboard farmhouse, where he would entertain the occasional out-of-town visitor in a pine-paneled -- and book-laden -- library. He also maintained a modest apartment in Washington.
Although McCarthy insisted in his latter years that he no longer paid much attention to politics, he remained knowledgeable and keen-witted, turning out a steady flow of books and magazine articles and making occasional speeches.
He also continued to write poetry, a talent -- and avocation -- that had always set him apart from other politicians.
He repeatedly declined to assess his place in history, insisting the record would stand for itself. “You just kind of let it happen,” he said.
McCarthy was born in tiny Watkins, Minn., on March 29, 1916, the son of Irish immigrants and the third of four children. He finished high school at age 16. At 19, he graduated cum laude with a degree in English from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., a school run by Benedictine monks.
He took a job as principal of a country school at Tintah, Minn., and later taught English at a public high school in Mandan, N.D. There he met another teacher, Abigail Quigley, to whom he became engaged.
Before their wedding, though, McCarthy decided he wanted to become a priest and entered St. John’s Abbey as a Benedictine monk. He changed his mind after nine months but retained a strong interest in theology and philosophy.
During World War II, McCarthy was classified 4-F -- ineligible for military service -- because of an acute foot ailment, but in 1944 he took a job in Washington with the Army Signal Corps deciphering Japanese codes.
After the war, he returned to Minnesota, married Quigley and taught economics and sociology at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
While on the St. Thomas faculty, McCarthy became involved in politics and helped Humphrey and other young Minnesota liberals purge the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of communist influences. With the party’s backing, he was elected to the U.S. House in 1948, where he remained until his election to the Senate in 1958.
The senator was a steadfast supporter of the landmark legislation Johnson pushed through Congress in the mid-1960s, including civil rights and voting rights bills, expansion of the Social Security program and creation of the Medicare program for the elderly.
McCarthy and his wife separated in 1969. The devout Catholics never divorced. They had four children.
On the day his term officially ended in January 1971, McCarthy marked the occasion by reading to a Georgetown gathering from his new book of poetry, “Other Things and the Aardvark.” The opening lines of the book’s title page were wryly self-descriptive:
I am alone
in the land of the aardvarks.
I am walking west
all the aardvarks are going east.
Some years ago his dry wit was on display when television interviewer David Frost asked him: “How would you like the first line of your obituary to read?” McCarthy replied: “ ‘He died,’ I suppose. That would be most reassuring.”
McCarthy’s wife died in 2001 and a daughter, Mary, died in 1990.
He is survived by a son, Michael; two daughters, Ellen and Margaret; and six grandchildren.
Pine wrote this obituary while a member of the Times staff. It was updated by staff writer Claudia Luther, and staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed.