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.
Given that he’d voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing more or less whatever escalation took the president’s fancy, the principle at stake was not so easy to discern. At one level, it seems not unreasonable that, in a country with growing opposition to a war, one of the two parties should represent that opposition at an electoral level. On the other hand, had the mostly young and not terribly representative antiwar movement failed to find its “accidental instrument” in McCarthy, today’s political map would look very different. There’s something to be said for taking the view that, regardless of the merits of this or that foreign war, once you’re in it you might as well win it. Alternatively, there’s something to be said for the position that, if you’re going to cut and run, do it quick and get over it, as the British did when they abandoned Aden, on the Arabian coast, the day before McCarthy launched his presidential campaign. On November 29, 1967, the Union Jack was lowered over the city, and the high commissioner, his staff, and all Her Majesty’s forces left. On November 30, the People’s Republic of South Yemen was proclaimed—the only avowedly Marxist state in Araby. Yet the British shrugged off 130 years of colonial rule in Aden with nary a thought. Just one of those things, old bean. No sense making a fuss about it.
But to cut your losses and then mire yourself in an interminable psychological quagmire of your own has little to recommend it. “Vietnam casts long shadows,” we’re told, but not so much across the nation at large as over the Democratic Party. Forty years after McCarthy’s swift, brutal destruction of the most powerful Democrat in the second half of the twentieth century, it remains unclear whether his party will ever again support a political figure committed to waging serious war, any war: Clinton bombed more countries in a little over six months than the supposed warmonger Bush has hit in six years, but, unless you happened to be in that Sudanese aspirin factory or Belgrade embassy, it was always desultory and uncommitted. Even though the first Gulf War was everything they now claim to support—UN-sanctioned, massive French contribution, etc.—John Kerry and most of his colleagues voted against it. Joe Lieberman is the lonesomest gal in town as an unashamedly pro-war Democrat, and even Hillary Clinton’s finding there are parts of the Democratic body politic that are immune to the restorative marvels of triangulation. Gene McCarthy’s brief moment in the spotlight redefined the party’s relationship with the projection of military force. That’s quite an accomplishment. Whether it was in the long-term strategic interests of either the party or American liberalism is another question.
As for the senator himself, he all but vanished except as an idea—a gentle giant, an inspiration, the conscience of the movement, etc. The way they talked about him you’d think he’d been assassinated in 1968, too. In fact, he remained politically active, at least in the sense that he became a perpetual presidential candidate, the most reliable quadrennial flopperoo since Harold Stassen. He ran most recently against Bush Sr., Clinton, and Perot in 1992. Were you aware of that? Don’t be embarrassed. The 42.4 percent “Clean for Gene” vote had dwindled down to a 0.2 percent largely Unseen for Gene vote by the time he ran against Ford and Carter in ’76. In 1968, he was the indispensable man whose charm was that he didn’t regard himself as such. Having been dispensed with by his party, he spent the next quarter- century insisting on his relevance.
Shortly after the 1968 campaign, his wife, Abigail, left him, though, as devout Catholics, they never divorced. And so it was with his party: they left the man but without ever being quite able to divorce themselves from the McCarthyite spirit of ’68. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young and Clean for Gene was very heaven.