Saturday, December 10, 2005

OBT: Eugene McCarthy

Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy dies

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former Minnesota Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, whose insurgent campaign toppled a sitting president in 1968 and forced the Democratic Party to take seriously his message against the Vietnam War, died Saturday. He was 89.

McCarthy died in his sleep at the retirement home in the Georgetown neighborhood where he had lived for the past few years, said his son, Michael.

Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination during growing debate over the Vietnam War. The challenge led to Johnson's withdrawal from the race.

The former college professor, who ran for president five times in all, was in some ways an atypical politician, a man with a witty, erudite speaking style who wrote poetry in his spare time and was the author of several books.

"He was thoughtful and he was principled and he was compassionate and he had a good sense of humor," his son said.

When Eugene McCarthy ran for president in 1992, he explained his decision to leave the seclusion of his home in rural Woodville, Virginia, for the campaign trail by quoting Plutarch, the ancient Greek historian: "They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage or military campaign, something to be done with some particular end in view."

McCarthy got less than 1 percent of the vote in 1992 in New Hampshire, the state where he helped change history 24 years earlier.

Helped by his legion of idealistic young volunteers known as "clean-for-Gene kids," McCarthy got 42 percent of the vote in the state's 1968 Democratic primary. That showing embarrassed Johnson into withdrawing from the race and throwing his support to his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey.

Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York also decided to seek the nomination, but was assassinated in June 1968. McCarthy and his followers went to the party convention in Chicago, where fellow Minnesotan Humphrey won the nomination amid bitter strife both on the convention floor and in the streets.

Humphrey went on to narrowly lose the general election to Richard Nixon. The racial, social and political tensions within the Democratic Party in 1968 have continued to affect presidential politics ever since.

"It was a tragic year for the Democratic Party and for responsible politics, in a way," McCarthy said in a 1988 interview.

"There were already forces at work that might have torn the party apart anyway -- the growing women's movement, the growing demands for greater racial equality, an inability to incorporate all the demands of a new generation.

"But in 1968, the party became a kind of unrelated bloc of factions ... each refusing accommodation with another, each wanting control at the expense of all the others."


Eugene J. McCarthy, Senate Dove Who Jolted '68 Race, Dies at 89
By FRANCIS X. CLINES, The New York Times, December 11, 2005


Eugene J. McCarthy, the sardonic Senate dove who stunned the nation by upending President Lyndon B. Johnson's re-election drive amid the Vietnam War turmoil of 1968, died early yesterday. He was 89.

A courtly, sharp-witted presence in capital politics for half a century, Mr. McCarthy, a Minnesota Democrat, died in his sleep at an assisted-living home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, where he had lived for the last several years.

His son, Michael B. McCarthy, said the cause was complications of Parkinson's disease.

Eugene McCarthy left his mark in a generation's skepticism toward war and the willfulness of political leaders.

"There is only one thing to do - take it to the country!" Senator McCarthy angrily declared in a Capitol corridor 15 months before the 1968 election, after hearing the Johnson administration make its case for the legality of the war.

Mr. McCarthy, a man of needling wit, triggered one of the most tumultuous years in American political history. With the war taking scores of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives, he rallied throngs against this "costly exercise in futility" and stoked a fiery national debate over the World War II model of an all-powerful presidency. He challenged Johnson in a primary, and the president, facing almost certain defeat, ended up withdrawing from the race.

Mr. McCarthy was a disarming presence on the stump as he mixed a wry tone and a hard, existential edge in challenging the White House, the Pentagon and the superpower swagger of modern politicians.

An acid-tongued campaigner, Mr. McCarthy was sometimes a puzzlement, veering from inspired speechifying to moody languishing. But he was the singular candidate of the Vietnam War protest, serving up politics and poetry, theology and baseball in a blend that entranced the "Clean for Gene" legions who flocked to his insurgent's call.

"We do not need presidents who are bigger than the country, but rather ones who speak for it and support it," he told them. His supporters were delighted by what they saw as his candor, yet some were troubled by the diffidence that marked his public persona.

"I'm kind of an accidental instrument, really," he said, "through which I hope that the judgment and the will of this nation can be expressed."

A Self-Styled Outcast

Typically, he only frustrated his followers when he allowed that he was at least "willing" to be president and, yes, might even be an "adequate" one. Questions arose about his passion on the campaign as he built a reputation as an unapologetic contrarian.

In his 1968 challenge and for decades thereafter, Mr. McCarthy played the self-outcast of the Democratic Party, even shunning Jimmy Carter to endorse Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate for president in 1980. He was a chronic presidential campaigner, running in 1972, 1976 and 1988, 18 years gone from the Senate. He endorsed trade protectionism, the strategic defense initiative advocated by Reagan that was often referred to as Star Wars and, most passionately, the junking of the two-party establishment whose rules he came to despise.

"It's much easier for me to understand politicians who don't walk away from it," he said when, at age 71, he once more knew he could not win but ran anyway, hectoring the latest Beltway incumbents.

Mr. McCarthy stayed busy writing poetry and books about the decline of American politics, and kept his eye on Washington from his farmhouse in bucolic Rappahannock County, Va., 70 miles to the west, on 14 acres set amid the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"I think he has a rejection wish," Maurice Rosenblatt, a Washington lobbyist who was a longtime friend, once said of the senator's perplexing mix of quixotic impulse and lethal hesitancy. "He wants to reject others and be rejected by them."

But others, conceding his quirks, rated Mr. McCarthy the one stand-up, cant-free politician of their generation. "Besides his conscience, there is his civility," Joe Flaherty wrote in the antiwar heyday of The Village Voice.

Mr. McCarthy delighted in commenting obliquely on politics and himself by reciting poetry on the hustings. His more zealous volunteers yearned for clarion calls, not pentameter. But this was not the style of a man steeped in the Thomistic tangents of his training as a Roman Catholic college professor.

Standing a lean 6-foot-4, gray-haired and dryly smiling, the candidate McCarthy gave a memorable rendering of Yeats ("An Irish Airman Foresees His Death") in suggesting why he ran:

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds.

As a speaker, Mr. McCarthy was an original but hardly stem-winding presence. "Usually the cheers were greater when he came in than when he finished speaking," noted the poet Robert Lowell, who frequently traveled with the candidate.

Mr. McCarthy, once a semiprofessional baseball player, liked to burnish a kind of knuckleball oddness. In one of his own later poems, "Lament for an Aging Politician," he wrote:

I have left Act I, for involution

And Act II. There, mired in complexity

I cannot write Act III.

He identified simplistic partisanship as the ultimate enemy in the domestic strife over the Vietnam War. Invoking Whitman's call to human goodness - "Arouse! for you must justify me" - candidate McCarthy's basic message to Americans was Daniel Webster's dictum to never "give up to party what was meant for mankind."

A Soft-Spoken Campaigner

As crowds rallied to him, he promised no new deals or frontiers. Rather, he slowed his baritone for a plain definition of patriotism: "To serve one's country not in submission but to serve it in truth."

He showed more passion as contrarian than as dogged campaigner. At the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Senator McCarthy showed that speaker's fire so longed for by his later followers when he boldly nominated Adlai E. Stevenson, a twice-defeated presidential candidate, one more time despite - or because of - John F. Kennedy's lock on the nomination.

"Do not reject this man who made us all proud to be Democrats," rang Mr. McCarthy's electrifying loser's plea.

In Congress, Mr. McCarthy was an unabashed liberal unafraid to take on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin and his alarmist warnings about the Communist menace. More often, as he restlessly paced the backs of committee rooms or brought a tome to read during hearings, Eugene McCarthy was viewed by peers as something of a ruminator and a curmudgeon.

Yet he was the one who dared to step forward and bell the White House cat when other Democrats would only complain. Grasping the unpopularity of the deepening war, he sought to make a party issue of it, announcing his primary candidacy against President Johnson, a fellow Democrat, in the hope of building pressure for a policy change.

"There comes a time when an honorable man simply has to raise the flag," declared the senator, a onetime novice monk whose political role model was Sir Thomas More, the English statesman martyred in resisting Henry VIII's seizure of church power.

Mocked by Johnson loyalists as a mere "footnote in history," Mr. McCarthy prevailed well enough in his time to observe, after driving Johnson into retreat, "I think we can say with Churchill, 'But what a footnote!' "

Senator McCarthy's challenge was intended to prod, more than destroy, the president. But in unnerving Johnson in office, he shook Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York from his irresolution about challenging the president. The critical moment came in the New Hampshire primary of March 1968, when Mr. McCarthy beat the pundits' predictions and won 42 percent of the vote. Johnson, despite his incumbent's grip, could score only 49 percent.

Within days, Senator Kennedy entered the race, embittering McCarthy supporters, not to mention their champion. Two weeks later, Johnson pre-empted greater popular rejection and astonished the nation by suddenly announcing in a postscript to a televised speech that he would not seek re-election and would devote his energies to ending the war.

The Chicago Convention

The year's tumult continued. Kennedy was assassinated in June in California as he edged out the McCarthy forces in a key round of the antiwar competition. The Democrats staggered to their convention in Chicago, where civic mayhem erupted.

The party machine forced the nomination of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to face Richard M. Nixon, over the objections of war protesters, including draft-ripe college students. Many demonstrators were beaten in the streets by the Chicago police of Mayor Richard J. Daley, a party stalwart.

"I can still smell the tear gas in the Hilton Hotel," Mr. McCarthy said in an interview nearly 30 years later. "I said before the vote we were not going to win, and there was no point in having the student delegations in the streets thinking we could."

"The party hasn't recovered from Chicago; sort of its integrity was lost," he contended in his ninth decade, saying that modern issues of importance were being sidestepped as candidates ran to the drumbeat of the focus group for the office of "Governor of the United States."

Robert Kennedy's brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, said in a statement yesterday: "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."

Mr. McCarthy viewed himself as the classic "messenger who brought the bad news" to the party, never to be forgiven. He withheld his endorsement of Humphrey until a week before the 1968 election, using the intervening time to demand antiwar concessions, but also, in a characteristic display of aloofness, to cover the World Series for Life magazine.

Baseball was his metaphor for politics and life. "We know Nixon's stuff," he said well before Nixon resigned in disgrace from the presidency. "He's got a slider. And he's thrown a spitter so many years he's got seniority rights on it."

Eugene Joseph McCarthy, of Irish-German descent, was born March 29, 1916, in Watkins, Minn., the son of Michael J. and Anna Baden McCarthy. He graduated from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., in 1935 and then earned a master's degree in economics and sociology at the University of Minnesota. He taught social science in Minnesota high schools for several years, then economics and education at St. John's and sociology at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

The young McCarthy thought he might want to be a Benedictine monk, but he left the monastery after a nine-month novitiate trial. He later married a fellow teacher, Abigail Quigley. They had four children. Soon after the 1968 campaign, the McCarthys separated after 24 years of marriage. They never divorced.

In addition to Michael McCarthy, of Seattle, Mr. McCarthy is survived by two daughters, Ellen A. McCarthy of Bethesda, Md., and Margaret A. McCarthy of Takoma Park, Md.; and six grandchildren. He is also survived by a brother, Austin McCarthy of Wilmer, Minn.; and a sister, Marian Enright of Walnut Creek, Calif. A daughter, Mary A. McCarthy, died in 1990, Michael McCarthy said.

Public Figure, Private Man

Mr. McCarthy remained active until the last few months. In January, he published a 173-page paperback collection of essays and poems, "Parting Shots From My Brittle Bow: Reflections on American Politics and Life."

Stirred to politics by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Mr. McCarthy was elected to the House of Representatives in 1948 and served five terms before being elected to the Senate, where he served 12 years.

In the 1968 campaign, Mr. McCarthy was the sort of candidate who could accept with equanimity a critic's charge that he ran "against the powers of the presidency."

In manner, he was faulted for arrogance; in strategy, for not broadening his antiwar constituency with stronger ties to blacks and the working poor, as Robert Kennedy did. The McCarthy civil rights record was considered exemplary, yet when asked about the issue at a rally, he dismissively advised his questioner to look up his record.

"Record, hell! Tell us what you feel!" the citizen shot back at the candidate.

Although his image was warm and witty on television, Mr. McCarthy stepped back from playing the candidate who engaged by self-revelation. Abigail McCarthy, respected in her own career as a writer, once said, "The essential thing about Gene is that he's a private person, and in an all-confessional age, that's considered almost treachery."

The senator who defied his president and party was confessional in his reliance on Thomas More as "the first modern man, the first political man."

"He was forced to make a kind of individual and personal choice at a time when there was great upheaval," Mr. McCarthy noted with satisfaction as he tried to explain himself to a nation also in upheaval.