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.
"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.
Within three years, the war in Vietnam had begun to sap the president's popular and political support. In October 1967, thousands of demonstrators marched on the Pentagon to protest the escalating conflict. Just over a month later, on Nov. 30, McCarthy announced he would demonstrate his opposition to Johnson by challenging him in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries.
For a few months that year, McCarthy "stood at the flash point of history with a book of matches in his hand," journalist Jim Naughton said in 1987. But McCarthy's failure to capitalize on the opportunity presaged his other quixotic presidential campaigns, in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992. He was never again taken seriously as a candidate.
He became increasingly critical of the two-party system and openly scornful of traditional politicians and campaign tactics. In 1984, he described Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale as a man with "the soul of a vice president." He had supported Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, arguing that anyone was better than Democrat Jimmy Carter.
After Sept. 11, 2001, he said the United States was partly to blame for ignoring the plight of the Palestinians. "You let a thing like that fester for 45 years, you have to expect something like this to happen," he told the Associated Press. He also told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that President Bush was an amateur and that he could not bear to watch the inauguration.
After leaving the Senate, McCarthy moved to Rappahannock County, Va., where he lived alone in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He wrote books, a folksy newspaper column and some poetry. One of his favorites he called "Lament of an Aging Politician."
I have left Act I, for
And Act II. There, mired in
I cannot write Act III.
He strongly objected to the 2004 book "Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism," by British historian Dominic Sandbrook, calling it "awful . . . almost libelous." The book took a dim view of McCarthy's political legacy as a serial crusader.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said last night: "Gene's name will forever be linked with our family. In spite of the rivalry with Bobby in the 1968 campaign, I admired Gene enormously for his courage in challenging a war America never should have fought. His life speaks volumes to us today as we face a similar critical time for our country."
His wife, from whom he was separated but never divorced, Abigail Quigley McCarthy, died in 2001.
A daughter, Mary McCarthy, died in 1990.
Survivors include three children, Ellen McCarthy of Bethesda, Margaret McCarthy of Takoma Park and Michael McCarthy of Seattle; a brother and sister; and six grandchildren.
McCarthy and his wife, Abigail, celebrate his election to the U.S. Senate in November 1958.McCarthy, shown celebrating his 88th birthday at a D.C. restaurant, moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains after his retirement from the Senate, and later to the Georgetown Retirement Residence in Washington.