ANNAPOLIS -- Eugene McCarthy, the man who forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to drop his re-election plans in 1968 and inspired a generation of political activists, came to Maryland yesterday to beg for a place on this year's Democratic primary ballot.
The 75-year-old former senator from Minnesota spent the afternoon in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court listening to lawyers grill Maryland's secretary of state about what makes a presidential candidate deserve a spot on the ballot here.
"Must be terrible to be a judge," Mr. McCarthy confided after sitting through three hours of testimony. "This is worse than Senate hearings."
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the decision of Winfield M. Kelly Jr., Maryland's secretary of state, to leave three candidates off the Democratic ballot -- Mr. McCarthy; Larry Agran, the former mayor of Irvine, Calif.; and A. Robert Kaufman, a Baltimore socialist.
When told that Mr. Kelly is a Democrat, Mr. McCarthy quipped: "If he were a Republican, it would be more like him to put us on the ballot." On the witness stand, the professorial Mr. McCarthy, with his shock of wispy, white hair, displayed the diffident, self-effacing style that made him a favorite with young political idealists almost a quarter century ago.
Asked if he was a presidential candidate, he said, "I'm trying to be, yes." He said this was his fifth try for the presidency, adding, "I've run three times and walked twice."
Earlier, eating a chicken-salad sandwich in the courthouse cafeteria, Mr. McCarthy said the Democratic Party needed fresh ideas.
"It's easier to start a political movement in Russia today than it is here," he said.
Mr. McCarthy wants to wipe out the national debt by levying a 25 percent tax on the accumulated wealth of rich Americans.
He wants to eliminate unemployment by reducing the length of the work week and redistributing the work among more employees. And he wants to impose a duty on imports from Japan and Germany to compensate for the money the U.S. spends to defend those countries.
The former senator said major newspapers and the television networks have effectively frozen him out of their coverage.
"Maybe I should create a sex scandal," he mused. "For years I've been saying we ought to have celibacy in the presidency."
Maryland law gives the secretary of state "sole discretion" to decide which candidates should be on the ballot, based on having been "generally" recognized in the national or Maryland news media.
Candidates can also get on the ballot by petition, but none of the three Democrats who filed suit opted to collect the required 400 signatures in each of the state's eight congressional districts.
Mr. Kelly testified that he looks for candidates who get repeated, sustained coverage in the newspapers he reads and on the television news programs he watches.
But questioned by the challengers' lawyer, John H. Morris Jr., Mr. Kelly said he doesn't subscribe to newspaper clipping services, search electronic data bases or make any special effort to see how much coverage candidates have attracted.
Mr. McCarthy complained that the Maryland law is "really letting the press, without any standard, make the decision."
He said he favored the system in New Hampshire, one of seven states where he is on the primary ballot: Simply pay a filing fee, and you're in the race.
Mr. McCarthy lost the 1968 presidential nomination to the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey and was never a major challenger again, although he appeared as an independent candidate in 35 states in 1976.
But his stance against the Vietnam War won him the admiration of a generation of 1960s liberals, many of whom got their first taste of politics in his campaign. He received a warm reception, even from Mr. Kelly, a defendant in the lawsuit.
"You're quite a statesman," Mr. Kelly told him before Mr. McCarthy left for a Virginia fund-raiser.
The hearing will continue today in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.