Eugene J. McCarthy, 1916-2005

Gentle Senator, Presidential Hopeful Empowered U.S. Antiwar Movement

Eugene McCarthy campaigns in New Hampshire before the 1968 Democratic presidential primary.
Eugene McCarthy campaigns in New Hampshire before the 1968 Democratic presidential primary. (By J. Walter Green -- Associated Press)
By Bart Barnes and Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Eugene J. McCarthy, 89, the scholarly and erudite Minnesota senator whose pursuit of the presidency in 1968 galvanized popular opposition to the war in Vietnam and helped drive Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House, died yesterday at the Georgetown Retirement Residence in Washington. He had Parkinson's disease.

McCarthy was among the first of the mainstream Democrats to break ranks with the party leadership on the issue of Vietnam, and his challenge to an incumbent president of the same political party changed the course of history.

He entered the race because he saw the Vietnam War escalating and said that the Johnson administration "seems to have set no limit to the price which it is willing to pay for a military victory."

"I am hopeful that this challenge may alleviate this sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government," he said at the time.

Backed by a "children's crusade" of young peace activists and college students who shaved off their beards, cut their hair and went "Clean for Gene," McCarthy stunned the political establishment by taking 42 percent of the Democratic vote in the New Hampshire primary. That was just seven percentage points behind Johnson.

The vote was widely interpreted as a moral victory for McCarthy, who had staked his candidacy on the single issue of Johnson's commitment of U.S. forces to the war in Southeast Asia. Overnight, it conferred a new level of credibility and respectability on the surging U.S. antiwar movement, and it precipitated the president's surprise decision less than three weeks later not to seek reelection.

A former college professor and novice in a Benedictine monastery, McCarthy had never marched in lockstep with the political chieftains of his day. He had a gentle demeanor, and it was often said that he had the heart and soul of a philosopher. He spoke with a cadence that sometimes made it seem as if he were quoting the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and when he was at his best on the campaign hustings, he could stir the spirits and fire the imaginations of his audience.

But he lacked the fire in the belly of a hard-nosed politician. His supporters, even in the throes of the 1968 crusade, resented his erratic campaigning and the time he spent reading poetry and talking with poet Robert Lowell. He would say only that he was "willing" to become president. It was "not much of a battle cry," recalled his 1968 campaign manager, Blair Clark.

But the campaign's beginning coincided with the Tet Offensive, in which Viet Cong forces attacked U.S. positions throughout South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. U.S. public confidence in the conduct of the war began to erode.

Six weeks after Tet, McCarthy's showing in New Hampshire demonstrated the depth of division within the Democratic Party. After New Hampshire, it was clear that opposition to the fighting had spread beyond those of draft age. Three days after the March 12 primary, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) entered the race for the presidency, and by the end of the month, the embattled Johnson dropped out, announcing he would not accept renomination.

During the ensuing months, McCarthy won Democratic primary victories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Oregon. He lost in Indiana and then, in June, in California, to Kennedy, who would be assassinated in Los Angeles only hours after the polls had closed on the night of the primary election.

But having driven Johnson from the presidency, McCarthy failed to claim the prize for himself. Even after Kennedy's death, he was resentful that Kennedy had let him do the difficult initial spadework, waiting until after New Hampshire to join the race.

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