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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)

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"Somehow in 1968, McCarthy was unable to do what had to be done to get the results he sought," his campaign manager, Clark, wrote 20 years later in The Washington Post. "He wasted weeks campaigning in the primaries against Bobby Kennedy, the interloper, not Johnson/Humphrey and the war. He made no effort to reassemble the anti-war coalition after Kennedy died."

The spring of 1968 had also seen the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which was followed by widespread rioting in the nation's major urban centers.

To the Democratic convention in Chicago came thousands of McCarthy partisans and war protesters bent on making their voices heard. Waiting for them was a city police department determined to maintain law and order. Inevitably, the convention was marked by violent clashes between the two opposing forces, and there was rioting in the streets.

Inside the convention hall, there also was tumult and disorder, but the Democrats did nominate a candidate, choosing another Minnesotan, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, over McCarthy. Richard M. Nixon was elected president that November, and the war in Vietnam continued for another seven years.

After losing his fight for the nomination, McCarthy essentially sat out the fall election campaign. He spent 10 days vacationing on the Mediterranean coast of France, then covered the World Series for Life magazine. In 1969 he gave up his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, knowing that he would be replaced by Gale McGee, a Wyoming Democrat and a hawk on the Vietnam War. He separated from his wife of 24 years. He also announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate in 1970.

"He put minimum pressure on Humphrey to break with LBJ on the war and when he finally endorsed him, it was so late and so weak that it failed to win Humphrey the votes that would have elected him. So we got Nixon and years more of war," Clark wrote in his 1988 article.

Eugene Joseph McCarthy was born March 29, 1916, in Watkins, Minn., and he graduated from St. John's University, a Benedictine school in Collegeville, Minn. After college he was a novice in a Benedictine seminary for a year.

He played semi-professional baseball as a young man, and he taught social sciences in Minnesota public high schools for a few years. In the early 1940s, he was a professor of economics and education at St. John's. During World War II, he did civilian technical work for a military intelligence division of the War Department.

After the war, he was acting chairman of the sociology department at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and he became active in Democratic Party politics. In 1948, he became chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Ramsey County, Minn., and that fall he was elected to the House of Representatives.

As a young congressman, he had a liberal voting record, and he was a key player in the formation of a group of liberal congressmen known as "McCarthy's Mavericks," whose early position papers led to the formation of the Democratic Study Group. In 1952 he took on Joseph R. McCarthy, the Red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, in a nationally televised debate on U.S. foreign policy. Pundits said Rep. Eugene McCarthy more than held his own against the better-known Wisconsin Republican.

In 1958, he defeated Minnesota's incumbent Republican senator, Edward J. Thye, winning 52.9 percent of the vote, with the support of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. At the 1960 Democratic National Convention, he won national prominence with his speech urging the presidential renomination of Adlai E. Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois who had lost as the party's presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956.

A contender for the 1964 nomination as Johnson's vice president, McCarthy withdrew in favor of Humphrey. That fall he easily won election to a second term in the Senate, drawing 60 percent of the vote.


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