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EUGENE J. MCCARTHY | 1916-2005

Eugene McCarthy; Candidacy Inspired Antiwar Movement

December 11, 2005|Art Pine | Special to The Times

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.

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