McCarthy, Eugene Joseph (“Gene”)
McCarthy, Eugene Joseph (“Gene”)
(b. 29 March 1916 in Watkins, Minnesota; d. 10 December 2005 in Washington, D.C.), U.S. senator and author who challenged the incumbent president Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary. His run energized the peace movement and did much to persuade Johnson not to stand for reelection, although McCarthy lost the Democratic Party nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
McCarthy, one of two sons of Michael J. McCarthy, a cattle dealer, and Anna Baden McCarthy, a homemaker, was raised in rural Minnesota and educated at Saint John’s Preparatory School and at Saint John’s University in College-ville, Minnesota, from which he graduated with a BA with honors in 1935, when he began teaching in the public school system. He received a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota six years later and taught at Saint John’s University from 1940 until 1943. In 1942–1943 he spent nine months as a novitiate at Saint John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery affiliated with Saint John’s University, but ultimately decided to live a secular rather than a monastic life. In 1944, during World War II, he became a civilian technical assistant in the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department. On 5 June 1945, McCarthy married Abigail Quigley, a writer; the couple had four children. From 1946 to 1949 he was an instructor in sociology and economics at the College of Saint Thomas (now the University of Saint Thomas), in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
McCarthy was teaching at Saint Thomas when his activities in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party led him to seek and gain its nomination for the House of Representatives. After winning the general election, he served five terms in Congress (1949–1959), where he became the leader of a group of Midwestern representatives called McCarthy’s Marauders. It was during his years in the House that McCarthy achieved his highest degree of legislative effectiveness. In the Senate, to which he was elected in 1958, McCarthy acted as a lone wolf and had little influence. Before 1968 he was best known for his nominating speech on behalf of the presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, when he urged delegates not to turn their backs on “this man who has made us all proud to be Democrats.”
McCarthy became one of the first prominent Democrats to criticize President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, as what he saw as American meddling in the affairs of other nations. In 1967 he published The Limits of Power: America’s Role in the World, a scathing indictment of America’s excesses in foreign affairs. In 1968 a young activist named Allard K. Lowenstein asked McCarthy to run against Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. McCarthy was far from Lowenstein’s first choice. He preferred Senator Robert F. Kennedy, but Kennedy turned Lowenstein down, and so did other senators. When he approached McCarthy, the senator said that he would run if no one else proved willing, because “there comes a time when an honorable man simply has to raise the flag.” These words would define his campaign. He had no intention of campaigning all out in the manner of Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Robert Kennedy, but he would plant his standard and see who rallied around it.
Pundits did not believe that McCarthy had any chance of doing well in the New Hampshire primary, as the Democratic organization in New Hampshire stood solidly behind Johnson. At least three elements worked in McCarthy’s favor. First, his extremely low-key campaign style went over well in conservative New Hampshire. Second, hordes of college students came to New Hampshire during their spring breaks and went door to door until almost every registered Democrat in the state had been exhorted to vote for McCarthy. At the time, students had a reputation for being rioters or hippies or both. McCarthy’s people urged them to get “clean for Gene.” The students cut their long hair and beards, wore respectable clothing, and seemed to have charmed many Democrats. Third, world events played a role. On the evening of 30 January, Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, attacking targets (including the American embassy) in some one hundred cities and towns. By March the uprising had been bloodily suppressed; although they were defeated, the Communists had made their point. Contrary to what Johnson spokespersons had been asserting, the war in Vietnam would not be won anytime soon—despite the deployment there of more than half a million American servicemen. Disenchantment with the war, together with his other assets, garnered McCarthy 42 percent of the Democratic vote in New Hampshire on 12 March. Better still, McCarthy’s followers got most of the state’s convention delegates and took over the New Hampshire Democratic Party organization. On 31 March, President Johnson stunned the nation by announcing that he had decided not to seek reelection. Two days later McCarthy won a big victory in the Wisconsin primary.
Despite having done the apparently impossible by unseating President Johnson, McCarthy’s troubles had only started. Vice President Hubert Humphrey began lining up delegates outside the primary system. In 1968 only a handful of primaries were truly open, enabling Humphrey to troll for delegates without entering any races. Then Robert Kennedy threw his hat into the ring. Kennedy’s early caution and late start were offset by his many advantages: money, fame, the Kennedy legend, and his own charisma. Whereas his brother, John F. Kennedy, had been cool and somewhat distant as a campaigner, Robert Kennedy ran hot, whipping audiences into a frenzy with his magnetism and glamour. As the two men differed little on the issues, their primary campaigns turned to a large extent on personality. In many states McCarthy’s aloofness, lack of discipline, and apparent indolence proved harmful to his cause. At big, organized rallies he often spoke badly, saving his eloquence for small groups and late-night gatherings. He would disappear periodically, alone with his thoughts or closeted with a few people, notably the poet Robert Lowell, who was with McCarthy from the beginning.
McCarthy lost to Kennedy in Indiana on 7 May and again in Nebraska but defeated Kennedy in Oregon thanks to good organization and Oregon’s demographics, which favored his candidacy. It was the first time a Kennedy had ever been defeated in a primary or in any election at all. Polls showed that McCarthy’s strength lay with college graduates and voters over fifty years old. Catholics preferred Kennedy by a small margin, and the two candidates almost broke even with trade unionists. Among voters for whom peace remained the important issue, McCarthy had a big lead. He appealed also to moderate Republicans. In the nation at large McCarthy had more Democratic supporters than either Kennedy or Humphrey. To win the nomination, he had to get beyond the primaries and then find a way to nullify Humphrey’s lead among Democratic delegates selected by party organizations.
It all came to a head in California. McCarthy’s followers were again well organized, and he had many celebrity endorsements, headed by the actor Paul Newman, who had been with him since New Hampshire. (By his organization’s count, 108 celebrities campaigned for McCarthy at one time or another.) McCarthy’s strategy was to either win or lose by a small margin. If Kennedy lost by a lot, he would probably drop out of the race, leaving McCarthy to face Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention, where Humphrey would have a clear majority of delegates chosen by the state parties. McCarthy’s only real hope was for a three-way standoff at the convention, after which hard bargaining might give him the advantage. He lost the California primary on 4 June by five percentage points, more or less his goal. The assassin’s bullet that killed Robert Kennedy that night killed McCarthy’s chance to be nominated as well.
McCarthy went on to win the New York state primary, but after Kennedy’s death, and with no chance of a deadlock developing at the convention, he apparently saw little reason to do more than go through the motions. When the Democratic National Committee (DNC) met in Chicago in June, Humphrey won easily on the first ballot, although polls taken at the time showed that McCarthy would have been the stronger candidate in a race against Richard Nixon. Today the convention is best remembered not for nominating Humphrey but for the violence that raged around it in Chicago, instigated by antiwar protestors and savagely suppressed by Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police force. It was the last DNC at which party bosses chose the Democratic candidate for president. Thereafter candidates would be selected by voters in the primaries, a policy adopted by the Republicans as well. McCarthy refused to endorse Humphrey until 29 October, after the candidate promised to stop bombing North Vietnam if elected. Humphrey lost narrowly to Richard Nixon anyway, thanks to the large number of votes that went to the third-party candidate, George Wallace. If the DNC had selected McCarthy instead, he might well have won the election.
After 1968 McCarthy drifted. He separated from his wife (though they never divorced), effectively ending a twenty-four-year marriage. He gave up his Senate seat in 1970 and ran hopeless campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1992, for the presidency as an independent in 1976 and as a candidate of the Consumers Party in 1988, and for the Senate in 1982. These ill-conceived ventures drew attention away from his fine record of service in Congress from 1948 until 1970 and from his brave and successful effort to drive Lyndon Johnson from office. In doing so, he had helped end the Vietnam War. When Richard Nixon became president, it was with the clear understanding that if he wished to be reelected he would have to get American troops out of Vietnam, which he had accomplished by 1972. The open primaries of today, in which voters choose the presidential nominees, are also part of McCarthy’s legacy. He wrote twenty books, including several volumes of poetry, and coauthored two more. McCarthy died from complications of Parkinson’s disease at the Georgetown Retirement Residence in Washington, D.C., and is buried in Saint Paul’s Episcopal Churchyard, Woodville, Virginia. He will be remembered for his intelligence, his wit, his civility, his distaste for bombast and cant, and his refusal to pander.
The Eugene J. McCarthy Papers, covering his political career from 1948 to 1970, are held at the Minnesota Historical Society. Files on McCarthy’s 1968 campaign for U.S. president are in the Special Collections and Rare Books Division, Elmer Andersen Library, University of Minnesota. McCarthy’s own account of his activities in 1968 is The Year of the People (1969). An autobiography is Up “Til Now: A Memoir (1987). The best account of the election year is Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page, An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 (1969). A critical study is Dominic Sandbrook, Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism (2004). A tribute by George McGovern is in the Nation (2 Jan. 2006). Obituaries are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 11 Dec. 2005).
William L. O’Neill