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Remembering how McCarthy shook the world in '68
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune


December 12, 2005

Eugene McCarthy was a poet and politician whose resolute stand against the Vietnam War toppled a president and inspired a generation of liberal idealists.

McCarthy, 89, who died Saturday in Washington, had been in declining health for about three years from Parkinson's disease. His son, Michael, was by his side.

McCarthy will be remembered along with Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale as one of Minnesota's three most prominent political figures in the last half of the 20th century.

An early architect of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, McCarthy was elected to Congress in 1948 and served 22 years in the House and Senate.

He'll be remembered most vividly, however, for his place in a single tumultuous year, 1968, the year of his remarkable challenge to President Lyndon Johnson's pursuit of the Vietnam War.




The war and the suffering it produced were "morally indefensible," McCarthy told his youthful audiences as he traveled the country to prepare for his run against Johnson in the presidential primaries. "Party unity is not a sufficient excuse for silence," he told them.

Inspired by McCarthy's audacity and intellect, thousands of "clean for Gene" college students descended on New Hampshire, site of the first primary. The senator's close second-place finish was widely interpreted as a stunning defeat for Johnson, who, after pondering the damage and the mounting opposition to his policies, shocked the nation by pulling out of the race.

It was the high point of McCarthy's career.

Robert F. Kennedy's quick entry into the fray split the antiwar movement and embittered McCarthy as summer approached. Kennedy's assassination in June, followed by the blood and tears of the unforgettable Chicago convention in August, left Humphrey as the party's nominee, McCarthy as its wounded outsider and Republican Richard Nixon as the victor in November.

Two years later, in 1970, a disillusioned McCarthy declined to run again for the Senate and began a quixotic second phase of his political life.

He wrote poetry. He published scores of essays and more than 20 books on subjects ranging from raccoons to the ruination of politics. He mounted four more campaigns for the presidency and one for the Senate, some as a Democrat, others as a third-party candidate. But his ambitions were never again taken seriously by voters.

Mostly, he retreated to his house amid the rolling meadows of rural Virginia to sharpen his nasty Irish wit. It was a vast talent for which McCarthy was both admired and resented.

At 6 feet 4, he was a tall, urbane presence with a shock of white hair, blue eyes that darted in constant bemusement and a tongue that couldn't help but issue tart comments, often about the Kennedys.

Asked to assess Jimmy Carter's poetry, McCarthy said it could only be compared with that of other presidents: not as good as Abraham Lincoln's and shorter than John Quincy Adams'.

His biting humor was legendary, although for some it proved an acquired taste. The political biographer Theodore White wrote of McCarthy: "All through the years, one's admiration for the man grew - and one's affections lessened."

McCarthy's iconoclasm may have peaked in the early 1980s when he endorsed Ronald Reagan for the White House and described fellow Minnesotan Fritz Mondale as having "the soul of a vice president."

Clearly, in the final third of his life, McCarthy resided far outside the boundaries of ordinary politics, making him difficult to describe in linear terms. He was a poet of considerable weight, a jokester, a critic, an essayist, a former first baseman for the Watkins Clippers of the Great Soo League.

And he was a Christian existentialist, educated by Benedictine monks at St. John's University in Collegeville Minn., an influence that prompted suggestions that he felt both an aloofness from the modern world and a moral obligation to speak his mind on it, whatever the consequences.

Eugene Joseph McCarthy was born on March 29, 1916, in Watkins, Minn. His father, the son of Irish immigrants, was a livestock buyer and a storyteller. His mother, from devout Bavarian stock, was a gentle influence who raised four inquisitive children.

Gene was an especially accomplished student and ballplayer who left home after the 11th grade, first for the prep school and then the university, from which he graduated with highest honors in 1935.

After a teaching job in North Dakota, he returned to Collegeville to consider a contemplative life at the abbey. He lasted nine months as a novice before taking a civilian intelligence post in 1944 at the War Department in Washington.

The next year, McCarthy married Abigail Quigley, with whom he would have four children and who would greatly influence his political career.

McCarthy's genial nature and good humor made him a popular newcomer in the House, where colleagues began calling him "Needle." His five terms might be best remembered for three events:

- In 1952, he was the first member to debate the infamous Red baiter, Sen. Joe McCarthy.

- Later that year, angered over a campaign debate with a young Republican attorney from St. Paul named Warren Burger, McCarthy began nursing a long-standing grudge. (In 1969, he opposed Burger's confirmation as chief justice of the United States.)

- In 1957, McCarthy organized the forerunner of the Democratic Study Group, a liberal think tank that for decades would be influential in framing legislation.

All the while, McCarthy held close the issue that would later make his a household name across the country: a tension between moral and political judgments and a cool perspective on the heat of politics. "Politics is like football," he once said. "You have to be smart enough to understand the game, but not smart enough to lose interest."

In 1958, after a contentious primary, McCarthy won a Senate seat. The urbane Minnesotan from a small prairie town began to get noticed. He made the nominating speech for fellow intellectual wit Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, further separating himself from the favorites, Humphrey and the soon-to-be president, Jack Kennedy.

In the aftermath of JFK's assassination, Johnson dangled the vice presidency before both Humphrey and McCarthy. But, upon hearing that Humphrey would win, McCarthy withdrew, feeling that Johnson had toyed with him.

The cultural split that would divide the country in the late 1960s had already taken hold in miniature: Johnson and Humphrey, the regular Democrats on one side, McCarthy and the counterculture on the other.

"The administration seems to have set no limits on the price it is willing to pay for military victory," the 51-year-old McCarthy said in announcing his presidential challenge on Nov. 30, 1967. And when he fell only 230 votes short of Johnson in New Hampshire the next March, pundits declared the president seriously wounded.

But it was a brief euphoria that washed over McCarthy and his adoring young followers. Four days later, on March 16, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York entered the race as a second, flashier antiwar challenger.

McCarthy, in the midst of winning the Wisconsin primary, was livid. The media were flocking to Kennedy like blackbirds on a fence, flying from one side of the road to the other, he complained. "We had about two days to maybe even reflect on the possibility of controlling the convention and that was it," he said later.

The Gene-Bobby rivalry intensified after Johnson's astonishing withdrawal. McCarthy rebuked Kennedy's campaign as "those sitting by their campfires up on the hillside, throwing notes of encouragement down to those fighting the battle on the valley floor and then coming down to join in shooting the wounded and declaring victory when the battle was won."

But the assassination of McCarthy's bitter rival in June seemed to take the spirit out of the reflective Minnesotan. At times he blamed himself for contributing to the poisonous atmosphere that ended Kennedy's life.

His campaign began to self-destruct. "Usually the cheers were greater when he came in than when he finished speaking," said Robert Lowell, the poet who forged a close kinship with McCarthy.

Later, McCarthy reflected: "The press wondered if I had a deep, burning interest in being president. I had it for two days before the primary in Wisconsin. It never recurred after that."

McCarthy acted the martyr in the fall campaign. He traveled on the Riviera. He covered the World Series for Life magazine. His tepid endorsement came only a few days before the November election. A lot of Democrats - and many of McCarthy's followers - thought his pouting had cost Humphrey the presidency.

Humphrey thought so, too. "Had McCarthy campaigned early and hard for me and the Democratic Party, we might have turned it," he wrote in his autobiography.

McCarthy was never again comfortable in the clubbish Senate. He described his colleagues' attitude this way: "We don't want to play with you." By the 1970s, he'd had enough.

McCarthy spent much of his retreat in a wood and stone house alongside Hwy. 618 outside Woodville. Va. The place suited him. It was far enough outside the Beltway to provide a sense of relief, a place where he could write and trade stories with the ol' boys down at the general store. But it was close enough so the Washington crowd couldn't completely forget him.

For years, McCarthy lived with his dog, Molly. He and Abigail separated in 1969, but they remained quite close. "Gene is like a relative," she explained.

His love for baseball was legendary. At age 80, he made a last trip to his hometown field, taking three swings for his old team, the Watkins Clippers. He fouled off a pitch, then swung and missed before bouncing a grounder to the right side. It was like him to refuse to strike out in his last at bat.

He spent much of his later years attacking the banality of modern politics. "What you have now are candidates running for governor of the United States," he quipped. He advocated cutting immigration, raising taxes on inherited wealth and expanding the number of major political parties.

He thought Americans consumed too much. "The dominant word in America today is more," he said in 1988. "We overconsume food and fuel. We overbuild automobiles ... We're overadvertised. Why spend more money on education when we spend $100 billion on advertising - which is pretty much designed to keep us from thinking?"

His wife, Abigail Quigley McCarthy, died in 2001 and a daughter, Mary, in 1990. He is survived by son Michael, a medical editor in Seattle, and daughters Ellen, of Bethesda, Md., a Democratic aide to the U.S. House Administration Committee, and Margaret, a veterinarian in Takoma Park, Md. A brother, Austin McCarthy of Willmar, Minn., a sister, Marian Enright of Walnut Creek, Calif., and six grandchildren also survive.

There will be a private burial Wednesday in Woodville, Va. Public memorial services likely will be in Washington and Collegeville, Minn., in the new year, Michael McCarthy said.


Conrad deFiebre contributed to this report.
Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service,

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