Like most of those who knew him, I was saddened late last week to learn of the death of former Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
McCarthy’s moment in the sun came in 1968 because he had the nerve to do what no other Democrat would do: challenge President Lyndon Johnson, a fellow Democrat with a reputation for vindictiveness.
McCarthy disliked Johnson’s Vietnam policies and a good bit more, always said what he thought and was adopted by the anti-Johnson left as a sort of challenger of last resort while more “realistic” Johnson critics such as Robert Kennedy prepared to jump in if he could inflict a mortal wound on the man in the Oval Office.
And McCarthy did just that in New Hampshire, where he came within seven points of actually beating Johnson, fielded a ground army the likes of which had not been seen in decades and built up a head of steam that but for the ambitions of others and his own ambivalence might have made him president. That didn’t happen, of course, because the Minnesotan’s penchant for truth-telling turned out to be a weakness as well as a strength.
McCarthy was, of course, riding the growing public dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War. Some opposed it by 1968 because they thought it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, and others believed it was being badly managed from Washington and therefore wouldn’t be won for that reason alone, and still others opposed it because, well, they were on the other side.
The hard left, which argued that the United States couldn’t and, more important, shouldn’t win the war, would eventually dominate the anti-war movement and was a big player in 1968. These were the folks who began by burning their draft cards and ended up burning their nation’s flag. They adopted McCarthy, never realizing that his opposition to Johnson’s Vietnam policies lacked the anti-Americanism that motivated so many of them.
As it happened, our paths crossed that year just prior to the Wisconsin primary, where the prospect of a McCarthy victory persuaded Johnson to bail out. As I listened to McCarthy and began studying his background, I became convinced that he was far more complex and far more honest than those of his supporters who were praying for a communist victory over U.S. forces in Vietnam. I decided to bet on that honesty.
Madison that spring was the site of the left’s first attempt to get the voters of a city to demand an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, and anti-war leaders had managed to get a referendum question on the ballot demanding just that. I was recruited by local veterans groups to manage the campaign against the referendum.
None of us thought we had much chance. Madison is more like Tacoma Park than Tacoma Park and is the home of one of the most liberal universities in the country, anti-war fever was peaking as anti-war activists from around the country poured in as part of the McCarthy crusade, and moderate and conservative students and non-students seemed lost.
The senator himself was to speak just before the primary at what would eventually be described as the largest political rally in Wisconsin history. I asked a friendly part-time reporter for a Madison radio station to do whatever it might take to get to McCarthy with his tape recorder, hand him the referendum question demanding our immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, ask him to read it and tell him how he would vote on it if he were a Madison voter.
My friend did as he was asked, and McCarthy responded as I suspected he would. He read it, paused and said simply that if he were a Madison voter, he’d vote no. We had that tape on the air within hours and won on primary day, even as McCarthy was trouncing Johnson.
I didn’t actually meet McCarthy until some years later, but we eventually became good friends and I told him what I’d done back in 1968. He looked at me for a minute and said simply that I had no idea how much grief had come his way as a result of that answer.
Gene caught a lot of grief over the years for saying what he thought, but those who listened realized whether they agreed with him or not that they were in the presence of that rarest of all political figures … a truly honest and thoughtful man.
He will be missed.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).