Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy dies

Anti-war candidacy, showing in 1968 New Hampshire primary helped to topple President Lyndon B. Johnson

December 11, 2005|By ART PINE.. | ART PINE..,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Former U.S. Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, whose surprisingly strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary dramatized deepening public opposition to the Vietnam War and effectively ended President Lyndon B. Johnson's political career, died yesterday. He was 89.

Mr. McCarthy, a Democrat who represented Minnesota, died at a retirement home in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., where he had lived for several years.

A relatively obscure senator who turned sour on the war as the United States escalated its troop buildup in the mid-1960s, Mr. McCarthy entered the New Hampshire primary partly to fill a vacuum: More prominent anti-war politicians, assuming that Mr. Johnson was unbeatable, had decided not to run against him.

Mr. McCarthy's candidacy was initially dismissed as hopelessly quixotic. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in a biography of Mr. Johnson, wrote that the challenge "was regarded by official Washington as a somewhat baffling exercise begun by a hitherto stable member of the Senate liberal establishment."

But Mr. McCarthy's campaign caught fire with young people - the vanguard of opposition to the Vietnam War - and hordes of them traveled to New Hampshire to help his cause. They stuffed envelopes and passed out leaflets in what became dubbed "the children's crusade." Many cut their long hair and put on fresh clothes to help impress older voters. Be "Clean for Gene," their watchwords urged.

Mr. Johnson had not declared his candidacy formally, so his name was not on the primary ballot. But it was assumed that he would seek re-election, and New Hampshire Democratic leaders organized a write-in campaign for him, fully expecting a win.

Mr. Johnson did win - but not easily. He garnered 49 percent of the vote; Mr. McCarthy, 42 percent. The results shocked analysts, showing that LBJ was vulnerable, and jolted other politicians into action.

Four days later, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a New York Democrat, who had previously decided against seeking the nomination, reversed himself and jumped into the race. Two weeks after that, Mr. Johnson stunned the nation by announcing he would not seek a second term.

Mr. McCarthy's glory was short-lived. Mr. Kennedy captured much of the momentum that had been propelling the McCarthy campaign, and the laconic Minnesotan proved unable to expand his base of support sufficiently. Some people placed part of the blame on his diffident campaign style. His friend, the poet Robert Lowell, said of Mr. McCarthy, "The last thing he wanted to do was to be charismatic. He was a mixture of proud contempt and modest distaste. ... Usually the cheers were greater when he came in than when he finished speaking."

Mr. Kennedy scored a major triumph when he won the California primary in early June, but that night he was fatally wounded at a Los Angeles hotel after delivering his victory speech. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a fellow Minnesotan who had served in the Senate with McCarthy, went on to claim the Democratic nomination. Mr. Humphrey, in turn, narrowly lost the November election to Republican Richard M. Nixon.

Truculent as well as contrarian, Mr. McCarthy abruptly decided not to seek re-election to the Senate in 1970, disappointing many supporters who had hoped that he would use his office to continue to push for an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Mr. Humphrey re-entered the Senate by winning the election to succeed Mr. McCarthy.

Mr. McCarthy ran for president again on several occasions but never came close to recapturing the constituency he had forged in New Hampshire.

Historians have come to regard his 1968 candidacy as a turning point: a campaign that galvanized Americans' previously fractured opposition to the war and pushed successive administrations into desperately trying to extricate U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. It also stands as one of the most vivid examples of successful grass-roots activism in U.S. politics.

Additionally, it helped spark an overhaul of the political process, particularly within Mr. McCarthy's party. After anti-war demonstrations disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention, damaging the party politically, Democratic leaders revamped rules to pare the power of political professionals in deciding on candidates and platforms. These changes weakened much of the party's structure, making it more responsive to insurgents.

Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. - who as a high school student in Waco, Texas, in 1968 was a McCarthy campaign worker - said the senator's revolt marked the beginning of the breakup of the old Franklin D. Roosevelt coalition that had fueled the Democratic Party since the early 1930s.

"It opened the way for major changes in the party that pushed it toward the left and enabled Republicans to capture the White House through most of the next several elections," Mr. Wittmann said.

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