Saturday, December 10, 2005

McCarthy ’68

A lot of memories came back when I read this:

Former Minnesota Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, whose insurgent campaign toppled a sitting president in 1968 and forced the Democratic Party to take seriously his message against the Vietnam War, died Saturday. He was 89.

McCarthy died in his sleep at the retirement home in the Georgetown neighborhood where he had lived for the past few years, said his son, Michael.

Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination during growing debate over the Vietnam War. The challenge led to Johnson’s withdrawal from the race.

The former college professor, who ran for president five times in all, was in some ways an atypical politician, a man with a witty, erudite speaking style who wrote poetry in his spare time and was the author of several books.

”He was thoughtful and he was principled and he was compassionate and he had a good sense of humor,” his son said.

Gene McCarthy was the first presidential candidate I got fired up about back in the spring of 1968. I was all of fifteen, a freshman at St. George’s, and already angry about the war in Vietnam. The McCarthy message was one of hope for a lot of young people, too, who had lost faith in politics after the assassination of JFK, and when he surged in the New Hampshire primary and jolted Johnson into retirement, the senator from Minnesota changed the course of the Democratic party, too. McCarthy didn’t survive the early primaries; he didn’t have the broad appeal that Bobby Kennedy brought to the party and the nation who saw his brother’s idealism rekindled, and after that awful night in Los Angeles, the hopes were dashed again. But Gene McCarthy showed the young voters that they could make a difference, and the course change to the Democratic Party was in place.

Looking back almost forty years later, some — perhaps most — would say that McCarthy’s impact was negative; the divisions in the party are still visible, and if the Republicans want to tweak the Democrats, all they do is point to McCarthy and the 1972 campaign of George McGovern as the “candidate of the counterculture.” (They’re blissfully forgetting that in 1964 they ran a candidate who was slightly to the left of the John Birch Society, and the result of the 1968 and 1972 elections was Richard Milhous Nixon.) But back then Gene McCarthy — “Clean Gene” — and his bands of young followers were ready to take on the world. Just because it came to naught doesn’t take away from the energy, the drive, and the hope a lot of people had to make a difference — and it might well be a good lesson to the next generation, too.