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Eugene McCarthy, reconsidered

Sen. Eugene McCarthy speaking at St. John's University in 1968.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Sen. Eugene McCarthy speaking at St. John’s
University in 1968.

Until, perhaps, the year we have just been through (and we need some more history to play out before figuring out how big that was), the most chaotic, impactful year in American politics during my lifetime was 1968. And two Minnesotans were at the center of it.

The Vietnam war raged; American cities burned; Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated; President Lyndon B. Johnson shocked the world by deciding not to seek another term; and Richard Nixon — whose racist and militaristic dog whistles during the campaign bore some similarity to those that worked for Mr. Trump — was elected president. Nixon had claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, but that turned out to be a lie.

One of the two Minnesotans was Hubert Humphrey, the long-time Minnesota U.S. Senator, who started the year as LBJ’s vice president, rose via completely unexpected developments to be the Democratic nominee (without, by the way, winning or even seriously competing in a single primary), and ended the year narrowly, at least on a national popular vote basis, losing the election to Nixon.

Forgive me, I meant to mention earlier why I’m blathering on about this today. It’s because the other Minnesotan in the thick of this story was Minnesota’s then-senior Senator, Eugene McCarthy, whose candidacy played a significant role in the larger story, and, according to some Humphrey supporters, cost Humphrey the election and gave the country President Nixon.

And (to finally connect to the present) a documentary about McCarthy’s 1968 candidacy, that has sorta been in the works since 1993, will air for the first time on PBS stations in Minnesota on Sunday night.

“Hi, Gene. Meet The Real Senator McCarthy” will run on PBS’ main local station, KTCA-Channel 2, on Sunday night at 11 p.m, with a few other showings (listed here) on some of TPT’s smaller stations over the next few days.

I liked the film. I recommend it, and it will bring back some memories to those who lived through 1968. But it’s an odd film for a couple of reasons. It includes plenty of archival footage from the 1968 campaign, then a bunch of interviews shot in 1993, 25 years after the events the interviewees are describing. Then the filmmakers put the project on the shelf, unfinished. Many of the key players in the story and most of those interviewed by the filmmakers in 1993 — including McCarthy and his wife Abigail and many others — have passed away.

Then the filmmakers dusted off the project and did additional interviews in 2015-16, with some of the still-surviving players in the story now looking back almost 50 years. The film benefits from the extra perspective of those looking further back, but it’s a strange amalgam of news footage from ’68, interviews from 1993, and still more interviews from 2015-16.

All of this, by the way, was explained to me by the film’s director, Rob Hahn of St. Paul. That’s the strange story of how the film came together; now back to the strange story it tells.

Opposing the war

Support for the Vietnam war was broad but not deep when it started escalating in 1964 with the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. That resolution passed the Senate 88-2. Humphrey and McCarthy both voted for it. Hardly anyone except the two nay voters (Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska) realized they were authorizing anything nearly as big as the Vietnam War. Moral of that story for future congresses: Be careful when you authorize military action that you aren’t giving away your power to decide what’s worth a war.

LBJ won his landslide 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater by portraying himself as the peace candidate. The Vietnam war wasn’t even front page news yet.

Over the next four years, opposition grew. McCarthy was not the most prominent or noteworthy opponent of the war, but his skepticism about it increased.

Two young war critics, Allard Lowenstein and Curtis Gans, got the idea of recruiting someone to challenge LBJ for renomination in 1968 by challenging the increasingly expansive and controversial war policy.

Rob Hahn
Director Rob Hahn

More prominent war critics than McCarthy, including New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had publicly proposed a bombing suspension and reduction of U.S. troops in 1967, and South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, who would run for president as an anti-war candidate in 1972, turned Gans and Lowenstein down. I assume they thought that running against Johnson in 1968 would be a political suicide mission.

McCarthy was not their first choice, and he also turned them down when Gans and Lowenstein first approached him. Then he changed his mind. There’s footage of McCarthy in the film, from one of the 1993 interviews, saying that he decided to do it because it needed to be done and no one else was willing.

The remark reflected a certain ambivalence, which came across in McCarthy’s style as a campaigner. McCarthy was witty and elegant, but also acerbic, cerebral, aloof and not particularly driven to knock on every door. Gans is quoted in the film saying that, “with Gene McCarthy, it wasn’t 12 events a day and glad-handing. With Gene McCarthy it was four events” (and then Gans drifts off without describing McCarthy’s enthusiasm — or lack of enthusiasm — for glad-handing).

Maybe I’m overly influenced by my own small exposure to McCarthy. He attempted a comeback in 1982, seeking the DFL nomination for Senate against Mark Dayton. Dayton was then just 35. I don’t know what made McCarthy do it. His career after his big 1968 campaign was a series of curious decisions, starting with not seeking another term in the Senate in 1970.

 During that 1982 campaign, I interviewed McCarthy and spent some time on the trail with him. He generated neither energy nor magic.  He got crushed in the DFL primary by 69-24 percent. (Dayton went on to run a fairly close but unsuccessful race against the Republican incumbent, Dave Durenberger.)

As an admirer of McCarthy in my youth (I was in high school in 1968), I came away from my brief 1982 exposure to him with new doubts about him, and new understanding about why he fizzled. There’s another fairly brutal quote about McCarthy, also spoken by Gans but he attributes the remark to another campaign official, who said of McCarthy: “I never knew a man who demanded so much total loyalty and gave so little in return.”

Nomination battle

But back to 1968. McCarthy’s showing in the New Hampshire primary rocked the political world. He actually finished second to a group of delegates pledged to LBJ. (This is often misremembered. Johnson’s slate got 50 percent of the vote. McCarthy got 42 percent.) But McCarthy way overperformed expectations, which contributed to LBJ’s decision soon after to announce that he would not seek another term.

And it led Bobby Kennedy to reconsider his decision to stay out of the race (RFK started rethinking a candidacy the day after the New Hampshire result, as the film makes clear).

LBJ publicly withdrew just days before 1968’s second primary (in Wisconsin). Kennedy wasn’t on the ballot but got a few write-in votes. McCarthy won with 56 percent. The political world was in shock.

After McCarthy and Kennedy were both fully engaged, they traded primary victories for a while. Humphrey became a candidate, but ran an insider’s campaign focused on states that didn’t have primaries. (He didn’t win any primaries, but in those days, most delegates were not chosen in primaries.)

The last big primary, in California, was set to determine whether McCarthy or Kennedy would go to the convention as the anti-war alternative to Humphrey. Kennedy won the primary but, as you probably know, was killed by an assassin that night.

By the time of the Democratic convention in Chicago, no one (including McCarthy, apparently) thought there was any chance of McCarthy defeating Humphrey for the nomination. Humphrey was nominated but the riot-marred convention left the party reeling. But, as you may also know, Humphrey made a pretty big comeback and closed to within hailing distance of Nixon late in the campaign.

Lukewarm support for Humphrey

The last part of the film, and perhaps the toughest for McCarthy admirers, involves McCarthy’s unwillingness to provide more than a lukewarm endorsement of Humphrey in the race against Nixon. There’s a brutal on-camera interview with Vance Opperman, the wealthy lawyer/publisher/businessman and long-time Democratic insider, who was in the picture when Democrats in the final weeks of the campaign were pleading with McCarthy to come out strong for Humphrey.

According to Opperman, McCarthy told the Humphrey folks that he would like to help but couldn’t do so until he completed a “very important assignment,” which he was working hard on and would be done with soon. McCarthy wouldn‘t disclose the nature of the assignment, Opperman says, but the secrecy was so great that Opperman supposed McCarthy was working to bring about a breakthrough toward peace in Vietnam.

It turned out that McCarthy had accepted an assignment from Life Magazine to write a piece about the World Series. And McCarthy did complete that. And, shortly before Election Day, McCarthy put out a press release, stating that he planned to vote for Humphrey. TV newsman Sam Donaldson turns up on camera in one of the 2015 interviews to describe the press release when it came in. It was just a press release that said he supported Humphrey over Nixon. McCarthy didn’t appear publicly with Humphrey or make any serious effort to deliver the support of any of his followers.

I don’t claim to know how much difference this made, or could have made if McCarthy had provided full-throated support. The documentary’s narrator says that “Even today, many of Humphrey’s supporters are still angry, even bitter, blaming McCarthy’s delayed and tepid support for Humphrey for the latter’s loss to Richard Nixon.”

But the filmmakers also included a statement from a long-time McCarthy campaign staff member who defended McCarthy’s lack of enthusiasm for Humphrey. McCarthy was keeping faith with his supporters, she said. Humphrey had not clearly repudiated LBJ’s war policy until very late in the campaign, and then only tepidly.

I had a chance to discuss the film briefly with Rob Hahn, the writer/director, and my own journey from a young McCarthy admirer to a grumpy journalist came across. After we hung up, he sent an email with some of his thoughts, so I’ll let him have the last word. Hahn wrote:

McCarthy’s opposition to the war grew as the war in Vietnam went on, and his opposition was not merely against the policy but the power structure, namely McNamara and the Pentagon, that enabled it (think Gov. Brown mentions something similar in the film).

Great political leaders are keen to spot an opportunity but also realize, as I believe was the case with McCarthy, that seizing that opportunity brings some great risks of failure. Having the guts to challenge LBJ, when other Democrats would not, is what separated McCarthy from his fellow politicians and made him a great leader for the moment in time.

Correction: The version of this story that went up this morning had the wrong year for when McCarthy ran against Mark Dayton for the DFL Senate nomination. It was 1982, not 1992 as the story now reflects.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/27/2017 - 10:17 am.


    I’ve only attended two presidential campaign events or “rallies” in my half-century of voting, and both were in that presidential year—one for McCarthy and one for Nixon. It’s fair to say they attracted very different crowds, though both events, like campaign events over the past year, seemed mostly staged and artificial, which is why I’ve never attended another one.

    I also remember 1968 as the most depressing year of my life in terms of how I felt about the future and the society I lived in. Until now, that is… Bobby Kennedy was perhaps less so, but Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of my youthful heroes, and to have both of them assassinated in the same year, then watching the chaos of the Democratic convention in Chicago on network television (no web in those days), made me less and less enthused about America’s future. Not a good state of mind for someone only 24 at the time.

    I’ve heard and read the term “whimsical” applied to Gene McCarthy’s campaign, and it may even be accurate, but the only presidential campaign sticker I’ve ever placed on my automobile was one for McCarthy in the summer of 1968. I was a very reluctant Humphrey voter. He struck me then as too much the “establishment” candidate in an era when “establishment” was even more of a derogatory term than it might be now. Still, I voted for Humphrey, largely because the alternative seemed (and proved to be) worse—a situation not far removed from this past November, frankly, and for me, the winner of last November has already exceeded all the negative expectations I had the morning after the election.

    I’ve contributed small amounts to local and state candidates over the years, though not on any systematic basis. I understand the truth behind the maxim that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” but increasingly see it as a corrupting and corrosive force. That said, the only presidential candidate I’ve ever given money to—in any amount—was Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Call me “whimsical.”

  2. Submitted by Larry Sanderson on 01/27/2017 - 10:35 am.

    Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end

    As I remember it, Humphrey supported Mayor Daily at the Democratic convention riots and supported Johnson’s War in Vietnam. Getting a crew of people who are being clubbed and beaten bloody on the streets of Chicago to support a war-mongering Daily sycophant, was going to take a lot more magic than either Humprey or McCarthy had at the time. People tell me Humprey was not an idiot, but his cowardly choices certainly proved that the times and fate had passed him by at that convention.

  3. Submitted by Jon Butler on 01/27/2017 - 11:23 am.

    Eugene McCarthy 1958

    I had just graduated from Hector MN high school and was waiting to go to “the U” when Eugene McCarthy, then Congressman from the 4th Congressional district in St. Paul, ran for the U.S. Senate against the very respectable if dull Sen. Edward Thye. I went to see McCarthy talk at the Renville County Fair in Bird Island, probably in August, where he appeared before a rather sour looking group of perhaps 50 farmers, the urban Catholic congressman impeccably dressed in an beautiful dark flecked blue-green sport coat that made the contrast with the farmers in overalls all the more stark. Twenty minutes after he started, McCarthy had the farmers wrapped around his little finger by focusing entirely on farm policy and price supports, a focus the farmers didn’t expect, just as they didn’t seem to expect his sometimes wry humor. I don’t remember if McCarthy carried the county in November—probably not because it usually voted Republican. But McCarthy beat Thye very respectably across the state with 53% of the vote to Thye’s 46.5%.

    When McCarthy wanted to engage, he could with great success, as he did a decade later. But over the years more problematic instincts superseded.

  4. Submitted by Richard Parker on 01/28/2017 - 02:05 pm.

    Memories of ’68

    Just the other day I looked at the large “McCarthy — Peace” poster in our third-floor extra room (It’s not valuable — it has condition issues). The only political volunteer work I’ve done was for McCarthy. I was on the staff of the then College of St. Thomas, where I photographed him on a visit but didn’t actually have a conversation with him. I attended my precinct caucus along with almost 100 other people from the neighborhood, almost all of us McCarthy supporters, and we railroaded our kind through as delegates to the state DFL convention. The couple who always held the caucus at their house said that in previous years about a dozen had shown up for the event.

    That summer I did some door-knocking for McCarthy and staffed a McCarthy booth at a county fair — Scott County, I think — where the nearby George Wallace booth was drawing twice as many people.

    In August, my roommate and I hosted a steak dinner for six visitors from Thailand who were taking a course at the Management Center at St. Thomas. They were province-level officials, possibly prime targets for assassination by the likes of the Viet Cong, someone told me. I grilled ribeyes and served Schmidt beer at our apartment across the street from St. Thomas, and at one point in the evening a guest asked me, “Would you turn on your television? I’d like to see some of your Democratic Convention.” I turned on the TV, and the scene was chaotic. It was August 28, the worst night of the convention. I was embarrassed for my country.

    I don’t regret working for McCarthy, although I agree with many of the points the film makes. I’ve thought ever since that I helped get Nixon elected.

  5. Submitted by Mike Hazard on 01/29/2017 - 06:08 am.

    Screen Gene

    People might enjoy screening another documentary about McCarthy, I’m Sorry I Was Right.

  6. Submitted by on 01/29/2017 - 08:58 pm.


    What a year!!! What a decade! The red Scare and McCarthyism, the Bay of Pigs, The missile Crisis, Civil Rights Marches, The race riots, USS Liberty, The Gulf of Tonkin, the Vietnam War riots, the DNC riots in Mayor Daily’s Chicago, “I’m not a Crook”!! Thank God for Apollo 11.

    Why do I feeling like I’m starting to relive the 1960’s again, except as an old man instead of a kid? At least there was Apollo in 69!!

  7. Submitted by Richard Mensing on 01/30/2017 - 04:55 pm.

    Another thing to consider…….

    Gene endorsed Ronald Reagan for president in 1980. (You can look it up.) I never paid much attention to what he said or did after that.

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