Former senator Eugene J. McCarthy, who died Saturday at 89, was the most paradoxical of the major political figures of his time. A deeply serious and religious man, an educator and a poet, he also had a wicked sense of humor and a great gift for satire. One day in the late 1950s, when liberal maverick Sens. Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, who were always in the doghouse of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, fell into a dispute with each other, McCarthy strolled by the press table in the Senate restaurant.
"Trouble in the leper colony," he observed, deadpan.
McCarthy defied easy categorization. A product of rural Minnesota, educated by the Benedictines and married to a woman, the former Abigail Quigley, every bit as capable a writer and thinker as himself, he was taken up in his thirties by the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, led then and for decades afterward by Hubert H. Humphrey.
He ousted a Republican incumbent to win the House seat from St. Paul, became an early ringleader of the reform-minded Democratic Study Group and moved on to the Senate in the big Democratic sweep of 1958. A renowned orator, he wrote and delivered a nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic National Convention that set off a wild demonstration in the galleries in Los Angeles -- and gained him the enduring enmity of the Kennedy clan, which was about to nominate one of its own for president.
However, McCarthy was hardly a national figure when Allard Lowenstein and other leaders of the dump-Johnson movement approached him in 1967, seeking an anti-Vietnam candidate who would challenge the president in the 1968 primaries. McCarthy had broken publicly with Johnson on the war, and he was still nursing personal wounds from being passed over by Johnson in 1964, when the Texan chose Humphrey as his running mate.
But McCarthy was characteristically reticent and ambivalent at the outset of the campaign, insisting in almost academic fashion that he was not "running" for president but was "willing" to serve.
For all his reluctance, he was a magnetic figure for young people in particular and for the broad swath of Democrats who had come to oppose the war. If Vietnam fueled his dissent, he insisted that his purpose was larger -- and less personal -- than for most candidates. In his fine double-biography of McCarthy and Humphrey, "Almost to the Presidency," journalist and fellow Minnesotan Albert Eisele quotes this passage from McCarthy's November 1967 declaration of candidacy:
"I am hoping that this challenge I am making, which I am hoping will be supported by other members of the Senate and by other politicians, may alleviate the sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government." No more selfless manifesto was imaginable.
The response was extraordinary. College students by the thousands scrubbed up "Clean for Gene" and hit the campaign trail in New Hampshire and later primaries. Even after all the stunning events that followed -- Robert Kennedy's entry into the race, Kennedy's murder, the bloody Chicago convention that nominated but crippled Humphrey, and the election of Richard Nixon -- scores of those McCarthy volunteers remained in politics, fueling a generation of Democratic activism.
Oddly, McCarthy was uncomfortable with the personal adulation. As ambitious as Humphrey, he was far more remote and self-centered -- the opposite of a glad-handing politician. I saw him as someone who deliberately distanced himself from even his closest political allies -- and not just when he lived with the Minnesota delegation at the Democratic convention of 1964 but also when he pursued his own ambition to become Johnson's running mate, while almost all of his old comrades labored to get Humphrey onto the ticket.
In 1966, when his Minnesota party was tearing itself apart in a protracted convention struggle for power between the governor and the lieutenant governor, McCarthy isolated himself in a remote hotel suite, refusing to intervene with the delegates but pouring drinks for reporters and discoursing on the Treaty of Ghent.
This history made his action a year later in plunging into the Vietnam debate and the presidential campaign all the more remarkable.
His last years were not happy ones. I heard him in a forum a few years ago, and his talk was a recital of grievances -- directed at people either dead or long retired, who had failed in McCarthy's still-harsh judgment to meet their responsibilities in that 1968 crucible.
But in that moment of history almost four decades ago, he stood alone -- an example of courage that resonates right down to this day.