If you strike at the king, you have to kill him. And, amazingly, Eugene McCarthy did. On March 12, 1968, the not exactly barnstorming senator got 42.4 percent of Democratic votes in the New Hampshire primary and denied the sitting president even a majority of his own party’s supporters: Lyndon Johnson secured just 49.5 percent. Within three weeks, he was gone: the president announced he would not seek re-election and effectively ended his political career. The king was dead, long live … well, not Senator McCarthy: the man who plunged the dagger in did not take the crown. But his few short weeks of stumping the Granite State changed his party, with consequences it lives with to this day. The LBJ diehards who dismissed him as a mere “footnote in history” failed to understand how much damage one footnote can do when he doesn’t mind whose toes he steps on and all the bigfeet turn out to have feet of clay. Thus, the paradox of Gene McCarthy: the revered liberal icon who destroyed the last successful liberal presidency. His act of insouciant regicide was the defining moment in the Democrats’ modern history.
A few months earlier, a group of antiwar activists had formed something called the Alternative Candidate Task Force. It would have been easy to find some purer-than-thou leftist to run a doomed third-party campaign in the ’68 election, but ACT calculated that it should surely be possible to talk a heavyweight establishment Democrat into opposing Johnson’s re-nomination. They called on a score of senators and representatives, including their preferred choice, Robert Kennedy. But, presidency-wise, RFK was in the middle of his long Hyannis Hamlet routine, and ACT wound up settling instead for a fellow from a Minnesota hamlet. Senator McCarthy was nobody’s idea of a dream candidate, least of all his: most of what passed for creative energy in his campaigning was devoted to the self-deprecating gags. But, with the big fish declining to nibble, ACT decided to go with Mister Available rather than Mister Right. He was a poet “mired in complexity,” as one of his verses put it, and an unlikely man of action. Four days after the New Hampshire primary shocker, Bobby Kennedy entered the race himself, and nobody really needed McCarthy after that. But he acted when nobody else would, and so LBJ’s ’64 landslide was overturned by 28,791 New Hampshire voters, some student campaign workers, and a non-barnstorming, prematurely sidelined senator.
McCarthy was an unlikely standard-bearer. A tall, courtly figure who’d been a high-school teacher and a novice at a Benedictine seminary, he was what Denis Healy, Britain’s former chancellor, likes to call a politician with a “hinterland”—interests beyond politics. He loved Minnesota’s flora and fauna and seemed ill-suited as either a fawner or a floorer, a creep or a bruiser, into which categories most ambitious politicians fall. Elected to the House in 1948 and the Senate a decade later, he floated upward into the inner sanctum of Democratic power without ever seeming particularly engaged by the nuts and bolts of policy and legislation. From today’s perspective, he had a parliamentary eloquence all but vanished from Washington. His colleague George McGovern hailed him for “a wit equal to Shaw’s,” though, like most political wit, it shrivels on citation. McGovern commends the riposte McCarthy made to Congressman Hill of Colorado, who in a debate on agricultural subsidies had brought up “some French girl” who’d been burnt at the stake. The gentleman from Minnesota replied, “I don’t think Joan of Arc went to her death in defense of flexible farm price supports!”
Hmm. If one regards political wit as Samuel Johnson did women’s preaching, that’s good enough, and better than most of the other examples of McCarthy’s nimble tongue. To a voter bemoaning an Election Day choice of Johnson or Nixon, the senator said, “That’s like choosing between vulgarity and obscenity, isn’t it?”—which has a certain blunt truth to it but seems a little heavy-handed to be dignified as Shavian. Watching Bill Bradley’s somnolent campaign style enervate and empty a New Hampshire diner in 2000, a friend whispered to me, “He’s trying to do a Gene McCarthy. But it’s harder than it looks.” And even the original couldn’t keep it up past New Hampshire, when the laconic-maverick-versus-imperial-president dynamic got muddied by the entry of RFK and by McCarthy’s own complicated relationship with the Kennedy clan.
Yet McCarthy left his party utterly changed. If his moniker weren’t already a political adjective, one might describe today’s Democrats as a McCarthyite party: among the younger congressional bigwigs, Barbara Boxer was a campaign worker for the senator in ’68; of the old lions, Ted Kennedy’s reflexive hostility to the Iraq campaign is far closer to McCarthy’s position than to either of his brothers’; and the Minnesotan’s Senate contemporary, the octogenarian pork-meister Robert C. Byrd, was pictured last year pumping his fist at a MoveOn.org rally, in a scene that looks like a deranged burlesque of McCarthy’s alliance with the antiwar youth of 1968.
After the 2004 election, Democrats took refuge in the conventional wisdom that “the American people don’t change commanders-in-chief in the middle of a war.” This conventional wisdom dates all the way back to, oh, 9:43 Eastern time on Election Night. Recent historical precedent suggests, au contraire, that wartime presidencies tend to end before hostilities do—or, at any rate, Democrat presidencies do. In Senator McCarthy’s case, he regarded Vietnam as a “costly exercise in futility,” but justified a break with his own president on the narrower constitutional principle of whether the Johnson administration had the right to wage full-blown war without paying any heed to him.