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Remembering Eugene McCarthy

December 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Eugene McCarthy gave a political face to the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1968, the Minnesota senator challenged President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination, galvanizing antiwar protesters, especially student activists whose efforts became known as the children’s crusade.

EUGENE McCARTHY: The people of this country have decided that the war is indefensible on every grounds, military and economic and diplomatic and also on moral grounds. And they want a change.

EUGENE McCARTHY: Both the president and Mr. Nixon are talking about ending the war. But they are not saying when or how or at what cost. I think that’s the issue in the New Hampshire primary.

RAY SUAREZ: McCarthy’s initial success on the campaign trail, finishing a strong second in the New Hampshire primary, led to Lyndon Johnson’s stunning announcement shortly thereafter.

LYNDON Johnson: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

RAY SUAREZ: McCarthy’s antiwar platform was overtaken by Sen. Robert Kennedy’s campaign. But after Kennedy’s assassination, McCarthy failed to regain momentum. And the Democratic nomination went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

However, McCarthy remained a national voice in American politics for the rest of his life. He was blunt, outspoken, controversial. At times he defied his own party. In 1980, he backed Ronald Reagan for president instead of the Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. McCarthy served five terms as a Minnesota congressman before winning a Senate seat in 1959.

He left the Senate in 1971 and reemerged to run for president four more times. He was a prolific writer and his last book of essays and poetry was published just last January.

Eugene McCarthy died at his home in Washington on Saturday from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. He was 89 years old.

RAY SUAREZ: Joining us to discuss the political career of Eugene McCarthy is presidential historian Robert Dallek.

Professor Dallek, the folk wisdom is that Eugene McCarthy chased Lyndon Johnson from the 1968 race. Now how did coming in second in New Hampshire unhorse a sitting president?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, it was an amazing story. Here was a relatively unknown Minnesota senator who garnered 42 percent of the vote and Johnson got 49 percent. And Johnson was stunned by this.

But I think what operated most with Johnson was the thought that if Eugene McCarthy could get 42 percent of the vote, what would happen if Bobby Kennedy stepped into the race? And Johnson was very concerned about being humiliated by not McCarthy but I think Kennedy.

And so the McCarthy race in New Hampshire drove Johnson to the idea that he had to get out of the race – that he couldn’t win. It was reality because he couldn’t walk around, couldn’t move around the country to campaign. People were protesting — there was such anger, such rage, opposition to that Vietnam War.

And it wasn’t simply people who were against the war who were supporting McCarthy. There were people for the war in New Hampshire who were angry at Johnson for not fighting the war more effectively. And they were giving McCarthy their vote as a kind of protest against what Johnson was doing in that war.

RAY SUAREZ: Now when Eugene McCarthy decided to get in, and it was still early in 1968, hadn’t Robert Kennedy ruled himself out?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, he more or less ruled himself out but when Bobby Kennedy saw how well McCarthy had done, Bobby stepped in three days later because McCarthy ran on March 12 in that primary and on the 15th Bobby was in the race.

Now McCarthy resented this and there was a lot of tension between them after that in the course of the campaign. And, of course, McCarthy did win a certain number — he won four primary races after that but he lost to Kennedy in Indiana, and he lost to Kennedy in California which, of course, told him that he probably was going to lose to Kennedy at the convention.

Of course, Kennedy was killed that night after winning the California primary race.

RAY SUAREZ: When Robert Kennedy was killed, there was still all that antiwar energy. That was a rising tide in the country. Why didn’t that move into the Eugene McCarthy column?

ROBERT DALLEK: It is a fascinating question because why should Hubert Humphrey, who was Lyndon Johnson’s vice president and who was identified at this point with the war, why should he triumph over a Eugene McCarthy?

There was something flawed about McCarthy’s campaign. He was almost wishy-washy about it. Yes, he said, if he were to be nominated, if he were to win, yeah, he’d become president but he didn’t seem to have his heart in it the way that Hubert Humphrey did and wanted to get that nomination.

Also the party bosses were very leery of making Eugene McCarthy the party nominee. They were convinced that he would lose, that he was too radical, too far to the left, and that he was too uncommon a politician to ever really get to the White House.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, he got many times more votes than Hubert Humphrey did in the primary season. But once Humphrey got the nomination, did McCarthy campaign for him?

ROBERT DALLEK: No, McCarthy sat on his hands until I think it was three days before the actual election. He was resentful of Humphrey and also, like many people in the antiwar movement, saw Humphrey as an extension of Johnson’s war policy.

And, indeed, what defeated Humphrey he Humphrey himself thought was the fact that he did not break with Johnson decisively during the campaign. He waited until the end and even then it was a kind much wishy-washy response to the pressure that Johnson put on him, not to break with his war policy.

RAY SUAREZ: The writer and historian Irving Howe said of Gene McCarthy whom he knew, once Gene McCarthy lost the nomination he seemed to permanently lose his bearings. He went into a prolonged sulk. Does that sound about right to you?

ROBERT DALLEK: It does sound about right. And he was rather philosophical, rather cynical about American politics. He did run again for the Democratic nomination, as you said in your setup piece — ran four times — but he was never taken very seriously.

And you’ve got to wonder, what was he doing? Why did he do it — because he had become so cynical about politics — and as you said he supported Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

He came to the idea that neither the Democratic nor the Republican Parties were all that reliable. And he talked about the possibility of an independent movement. And maybe that’s why he was still involved in presidential politics: To give people a kind of alternative, the way Ralph Nader did in the last two presidential campaigns.

RAY SUAREZ: So you’re a man whose whole adult life has been chronicling history. Are there sometimes politicians like this whose real career-high watermark ends up being a race they in fact lose but change by being in there?

ROBERT DALLEK: Absolutely. It’s so interesting. McCarthy had ten years in the House of Representatives, only two terms as a senator. What did he pass? Are there any bills or any piece of legislation that he’s identified with? Not at all.

The only thing he’ll be remembered for and justifiably so is the fact that he stepped forward to oppose Lyndon Johnson and a war in Vietnam which he saw going nowhere which was killing thousands and thousands of people, including many, many American troops, and he set a standard so to speak.

He’s admired for this — to this day for the fact that he was the voice that in the Democratic Party in the establishment to oppose this conflict in Vietnam. And that’s what he’ll always be remembered for. And it is rather ironic because, otherwise, who would ever remember Eugene McCarthy — he’d be another one of the obscure senators who became a faceless, nameless politician in American history.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Dallek, good to see you. Thanks.