Yet that was the problem for the professorial McCarthy, who died yesterday in Washington, D.C., at age 89, due to complications of Parkinson’s disease: His rise to fame also trapped him in time. Remember Gene? He was the upstart senator from Minnesota who in 1968 challenged incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination, basing his campaign on opposition to the Vietnam War, which (despite LBJ’s visionary social-reform efforts) had come to define Johnson’s presidency. After McCarthy, with the backing of antiwar students, won 42 percent of the votes in that year’s New Hampshire primary, compared with LBJ’s 49 percent, the president recognized how deep the divisions were within the Democratic Party on the war issue, and announced that he wasn’t going to seek re-election, after all. In the aftermath, McCarthy was touted as a serious contender for the Oval Office, though an unpredictable one, as The New York Times cast him in its obituary:
An acid-tongued campaigner, Mr. McCarthy was sometimes a puzzlement, veering from inspired speechifying to moody languishing. But he was the singular candidate of the Vietnam War protest, serving up politics and poetry, theology and baseball in a blend that entranced the “Clean for Gene” legions who flocked to his insurgent’s call.However, the entry of Robert F. Kennedy--another at least nominally antiwar candidate--into the 1968 race, followed by Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles and Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s rapid rise to become the most broadly acceptable choice among the Democratic flock, ultimately doomed McCarthy’s chances. Although there’d been early expectations of his nomination, he wound up with a scant 23 of the delegates at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Humphrey went on to challenge Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon, losing by a narrow margin of popular votes.
“We do not need presidents who are bigger than the country, but rather ones who speak for it and support it,” he told them. His supporters were delighted by what they saw as his candor, yet some were troubled by the diffidence that marked his public persona.
“I’m kind of an accidental instrument, really,” he said, “through which I hope that the judgment and the will of this nation can be expressed.”
McCarthy wasn’t finished on the national stage, though. Not by a long shot. A year after leaving the Senate in 1971, he again made a bid for the Democratic presidential nod, this time being eclipsed by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. Now twice disappointed, he turned his back on the Democratic Party, and as an Independent in 1976, launched what even many former supporters interpreted as a “spoiler” campaign against Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter and incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford (who had ascended to the White House in 1974 after Nixon resigned under investigation in the Watergate scandal). Sadly, the man who’d been seen in 1968 as an idealistic, iconoclastic senator necessarily challenging the status quo struck many Americans in ’76 as an embittered old lefty, who, frustrated by the political machine, wanted to show that a campaign could still be carried out on the academic, philosophical level, without all the flashy trappings and frequently hollow rhetoric employed by his opponents. Time magazine wasn’t impressed. “Like the cinematic Road Runner,” it opined, “McCarthy is a factor in the race--at least as far as creating a lot of mischief along the way.”
Years later, I had the chance to ask John Callahan for his perspective on the ’76 race. He attributed McCarthy’s poor showing (0.9 percent to Carter’s 50.1 percent) to media disinterest. He said the press essentially ignored his running mate’s candidacy, giving the “false impression” that McCarthy wasn’t even in the same league as the frontrunners. “We ran into a lot of people in ’76 who said, ‘I’d vote for him, but the real race is between Carter and Ford,’” Callahan told me.
Like the perennial candidate William Jennings Bryan before him, McCarthy just kept trying. His last campaign for the White House came in 1992, when he rejoined the Democratic Party and entered the New Hampshire primary, only to be marginalized and excluded from most candidate debates. Undoubtedly, it was that experienced that led him to fight (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for the inclusion of consumer-rights advocate and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential debates. After that, McCarthy pretty much disappeared from the headlines. He continued to pen poetry, as he had done for many years of his life, and contributed occasional articles to Minnesota Law & Politics and other periodicals. He also saw published the last of his more than 20 books, Parting Shots From My Brittle Bow: Reflections on American Politics and Life, in January 2005, but wasn’t well enough by then to go on a promotional tour. According to an excellent retrospective on his life in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Eugene Joseph McCarthy was living in a retirement residence in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington when he died in his sleep.
HOW THE MEDIA MISUNDERSTOOD McCARTHY. Garrison Keillor writes in Salon that “The obituaries for Gene McCarthy had little relevance to the man I knew and a lot to do with the accepted clichés of journalists. A man who runs for president against an incumbent of his own party is going to have the word ‘quixotic’ glued to his rear end, and a man who doesn’t have the arrogance of a rhino, who actually has a sense of humor about himself, is going to be ‘diffident.’ This is discouraging to the older person. You can work hard all your life and in the end they will get you wrong. It’s merciful that you get to die before you have to chance to read what they say.” Read on.
READ MORE: “Gentle Senator, Presidential Hopeful Empowered U.S. Antiwar Movement,” by Bart Barnes and Patricia Sullivan (The Washington Post); “Sen. Eugene McCarthy Remembered,” by Dana Cook (Salon); “Gene McCarthy: A Pure Original,” by George McGovern (The Nation); “The Quiet Man,” by Roger Kahn (The New York Times); “Eugene McCarthy’s Lyrical Politics,” by John Nichols (The Nation).