Clean Gene plugs away, 24 years from beating LBJ


April 08, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

NEW YORK -- It was back in February that I first saw Gene McCarthy on the campaign trail.

He had walked into a hotel dining room in Manchester, N.H., and then had paused for a moment.

Though the years have taken a certain toll -- he just turned 76 -- he was still an imposing figure: tall, white-haired and dressed in a long black coat.

I watched him stand there and look around the room. The New Hampshire primary was just a few days away, and dozens of national political reporters were eating.

McCarthy waited for a moment, as if expecting someone to hail him, to wave him over, to invite him to sit down and talk about old times.

In 1968, Gene McCarthy had changed the course of American history in New Hampshire. He won more delegates in the Democratic primary than President Lyndon Johnson and forced Johnson to drop his plans for re-election.

But that was 1968. And it hasn't been 1968 for quite a while now.

And this night nobody invited Gene McCarthy to come over and sit down and eat dinner.

So he just walked over to a table and sat there by himself, staring into the menu.

"Jeez," a reporter at my table said, "didn't that used to be Gene McCarthy?"

Yeah. Used to be.

This is McCarthy's fifth campaign for the presidency. And if anybody cares that he is running, it isn't showing.

McCarthy has been denied access to the big, nationally televised debates. He is rarely interviewed. He is not a grand old man of his party.

While he is still remembered by the public (a few of them, anyway) for his anti-Vietnam War stand and his "Clean Gene" nickname and "The Children's Crusade," Democratic Party regulars remember him for other things:

They remember how he did not campaign for the ticket after losing the nomination to Hubert Humphrey in 1968 (and how narrowly Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon).

They remember how in 1976 when McCarthy ran on a third-party ticket, he almost sunk Jimmy Carter by denying him victories in four states. And many think that if McCarthy had not been kept off the ballot in New York, he would have drained off enough votes from Carter to give the state and the presidency to Gerald Ford that year.

(On that basis, McCarthy may have run the most significant third-party campaign in the modern era. It remains anybody's guess as towhether Ross Perot can do better.)

And the Democrats especially remember how McCarthy endorsed Ronald Reagan for president in 1980.

Yet today, McCarthy is a man of no regrets. He has not mellowed. He campaigned for four days in the New York primary and he intends to slog on.

He will be on the ballot in California on the last day of the primary season, just as he was on the ballot in New Hampshire on the first.

"But the party has never forgiven me," he told me. "I have never been asked to speak at a convention. But I'll make an offer to the Democrats: I'll say I'm sorry I was right about Vietnam if it makes them feel better."

Which is pure Gene McCarthy: the sardonic little comment with just the right twist of the knife.

He has a plan, a platform, a whole list of issues, but few really want to hear them. A $50-a-person fund-raiser for him in Washington last December drew only about 20 people.

"Nobody really knows I'm running," he said. "I like campaigning if you can really talk about issues, but nobody knows I'm out there."

He does not like any of the candidates currently running for president on either side. I asked him to name the last president he actually did like.

He thought for a moment and said: "Harry Truman. He had respect for the institutions of government."

Next year will be the 25th anniversary of McCarthy's historic victory in New Hampshire, and his friends want to throw him a big party.

But he is not looking forward to it.

"I'd rather do something important in 1992 than celebrate an anniversary in 1993," he said.

But what can he really do?

Well, there is this:

In February's New Hampshire primary Harold Stassen, the Republicans' perennial candidate, got 206 votes.

Gene McCarthy got 211.

Sometimes you take the victories you can get.

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