Memories of Past War Rekindled at McCarthy Service

After paying tribute to her father, Ellen McCarthy passes former president Bill Clinton, Rep. James L. Oberstar and journalist Mary Alice Williams.
After paying tribute to her father, Ellen McCarthy passes former president Bill Clinton, Rep. James L. Oberstar and journalist Mary Alice Williams. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

It had been nearly 40 years since Eugene J. McCarthy stood up to a president from his own party and became the voice of America's disenchantment with the Vietnam War. Yesterday, hundreds of youths he once inspired, now graying professionals, gathered at the Washington National Cathedral for a memorial service that honored him as a man of courage and integrity.

The service for McCarthy, who died Dec. 10 at 89, was attended by former president Bill Clinton, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, TV news show host Chris Matthews and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose brother Robert was once McCarthy's rival for the presidency.

But it was less a political see-and-be-seen than a reunion of friends and baby boomers who said McCarthy had touched their lives with a message of hope.

The year 1968 "was a pivotal year for the country, and it was for many of us who worked in the campaign," said Genie Grohman, who quit her government job as a program analyst then to support McCarthy's presidential bid. The Northwest Washington resident is now 65 and wears her hair in a gray bun. But yesterday, she proudly donned the blue-and-white McCarthy button of her youth.

The two-hour service drew about 800 people, according to a church spokesman. It featured tributes by Clinton; Rep. James L. Oberstar (D), from McCarthy's native Minnesota; two of McCarthy's children, Michael and Ellen; and TV journalist Mary Alice Williams, whose family and McCarthy's were longtime friends. Peter Yarrow, of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, serenaded the crowd with such ballads as "This Land Is Your Land."

Speakers recalled McCarthy as a man who risked his political career for his principles, launching such a stunning challenge to Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primary that the president quit the race.

McCarthy's candidacy was eclipsed when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) entered the race. Johnson's vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, won the nomination after Kennedy was assassinated. Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, would go on to capture the presidency.

Speakers remarked yesterday that McCarthy's forceful antiwar arguments have particular resonance at a time when the United States is again deeply involved in a foreign conflict.

"Gene McCarthy foreshadowed then what we are living now," said Oberstar, quoting a McCarthy criticism that the Johnson administration accepted "no limits for the price it is willing to pay for military victory."

Clinton recalled the turbulent year of 1968, when the country was rocked by the assassinations of Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"One thing remained constant: The country had turned against the war," the former president recalled. "It all began with Gene McCarthy willing to stand alone and change the tide of history."

Clinton remembered how, as a young man in Washington, he was invited to a black-tie dinner but owned no black shoes. He wound up borrowing them from a fellow Democrat with big feet -- McCarthy. At the dinner, Clinton said, he decided not to pass through the receiving line for Nixon.

"It didn't seem the right thing to do, wearing McCarthy's shoes," he said, prompting a burst of applause.

"In one way or another," he added, "every Democrat since '68 has had to walk in them."

McCarthy was remembered as the most unusual of politicians, a man who relished the hand-shaking frenzy of campaigns but also read philosophy and poetry. He had a stinging wit but was known for acts of kindness.

Chris Risley, 52, lives in Ontario, Canada, but can remember stuffing envelopes for McCarthy's campaign when he was a teenager in Alexandria.

"It was just a vibrant time," he said at the cathedral. "There was a real sense of awakening, that we could change things."


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