By Ben Goddard - 12/15/05 12:00 AM EST
Five days after his death, so many words have been written about former Sen. Eugene McCarthy that I hesitated to add to the archives. As many have noted, he was a poet, a philosopher, a U.S senator and a man who changed the course of history. He was also a man who changed the course of my life.
He didn’t enlighten me about the folly of Vietnam. Influences ranging from Ramparts magazine, campus teach-ins and common sense had already persuaded me this was a war we could not, would not and should not win.
I’d done active duty time in the National Guard, still wore my hair relatively short and was usually the “straight” one at the teach-ins I helped organize throughout the Northwest. But I was not convinced the political system could right the wrongs I saw in my youthful idealism.
McCarthy changed all that. Here was a messenger who could inspire college kids to cut their hair and walk door to door with middle-age Quakers in the freezing winter of New Hampshire. McCarthy’s seemingly quixotic campaign was not about power. It was about a message — a mission. He said President Lyndon Johnson was wrong, Robert McNamara was wrong and Gen. William Westmoreland was wrong.
If the president wasn’t willing to do the right thing, he was “willing” to be president. “Willing to be president.” It was the perfect message for the time. He got it; the politicians and pundits did not. A handful of wealthy liberals wrote some checks, and a “children’s crusade” was born.
Something funny happened that frosty spring in New Hampshire. Forty-two percent of a population that didn’t wear beads and tie-dye and long hair voted for the message of the professorial senator from Minnesota. It shifted the political landscape of 1968. One could argue it has shifted the landscape of every presidential campaign since by establishing the law of expectations. McCarthy came in second but ran so far ahead of what anyone thought he would do that Johnson dropped out of the race and Sen. Robert Kennedy jumped in.
Kennedy had made speeches against the war, as had senators such as Frank Church, Wayne Morse and Al Gore Sr. There had been marches and protests and teach-ins and articles by liberal writers. Most important, there had been nightly television-news coverage of a war that we were clearly losing. But none of that drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House. It took a messenger who was willing to stand in tiny living rooms and crowded coffee shops to say that things had gone terribly wrong and that you didn’t have to be a political radical to say so.
That you could say that in the American political system and people would hear your message was a turning point. Yes, 1968 devolved into a year of horror with the death of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the bloody Chicago convention and the eventual nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic candidate for president. (The fact that our courageous messenger spent the summer sulking in France and writing about baseball may or may not have cost Humphrey the presidency.) The campaign of ’68 left many disheartened, and then politics turned weird under President Richard Nixon, but thousands of young Americans who were once ready to walk away from the system stayed and played, all because one unique poet/politician had the courage to be the messenger. It all started with a man who was not afraid to tell the truth, and people were willing to hear his message.
No, he never reached the office he was “willing” to accept. One can argue that while he had the right message, he was plagued by events and character flaws that prevented him from turning willing to winning.
That does not detract from the fact that one man at one instant in time with the right message changed the world. Not just the political world of 1968, but also the world of politics for decades to follow.
As Democrats look forward to the 2008 election, they would be wise also to look back 40 years. In two consecutive presidential campaigns, the party has not been able to find a messenger with a vision Americans will follow. It was certainly not clear 40 years ago from where the messenger would come. Nor were there polls to define his position for him. But now as then, Americans will listen to a new messenger. He or she is out there.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.