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Two favorite sons: the Humphrey-McCarthy battle of 1968

The DFL party struggle in Minnesota played out against a series of tragedies traumatizing the nation in the months leading to the November election.

Part three in a series
Warren Spannaus was driving home from a meeting in Thief River Falls when he heard the news on his car radio. He slammed on the brakes, throwing his passenger, a young Minneapolis lawyer named David Lebedoff, to the floor. On that March night in 1968, the news that jolted Spannaus, the chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, was President Lyndon Johnson’s surprise announcement that he would not be a candidate for re-election in November.

“When I looked up, I saw that Warren’s face was in his hands,” Lebedoff later recalled. “He wasn’t upset. He was just trying very hard to think.”

Spannaus knew that Johnson’s announcement would further widen a division in the Minnesota DFL that threatened to tear the party apart. The DFL would face the prospect of two Minnesota political leaders vying for the national party’s presidential nomination. On one side was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who backed the Johnson administration’s war policy in Vietnam. On the other was the state’s senior senator, Eugene McCarthy, a leading antiwar proponent, whose strong showing in the New Hampshire primary had pushed Johnson toward the decision to withdraw from the 1968 campaign.

The 1968 McCarthy-Humphrey contest rubbed raw the wounds that had not yet healed from the intraparty battle two years earlier. In 1966, the DFL had dumped its incumbent governor, Karl Rolvaag, for Rolvaag’s lieutenant governor, Sandy Keith, only to see Keith lose to Rolvaag in the September primary.

In 1968, the renewed party struggle in Minnesota played out against a series of tragedies traumatizing the nation in the months leading to the November election. First came the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April, then the slaying of Robert Kennedy in June, and, finally, the August battles in the streets during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail in 1968.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail in 1968.

Throughout that tumultuous election year, the Minnesota DFL establishment, tightly linked to the Johnson-Humphrey administration, worked furiously to beat back a growing antiwar insurgency, spearheaded by McCarthy supporters. DFL activists were lining up on one side or the other, with little middle ground. One Minnesota political leader, Fifth District Rep. Donald Fraser, tried to bridge the gap, but ended up getting squeezed by both sides. Fraser was an early critic of the administration’s policy in Vietnam and an antiwar leader in the U.S. House, but he nevertheless supported Humphrey. Fraser’s impeccable antiwar credentials were not enough to head off a DFL primary challenge spearheaded by the state’s most fervent McCarthy partisans, who were outraged by Fraser’s support of his one-time mentor, the current vice president.

“In no other state were Democrats so torn and troubled as they were in Minnesota, where they were compelled to choose between two of their leaders — men whom they respected as shapers and leaders of the DFL Party,” observed Alpha Smaby, then a Minnesota state legislator and a McCarthy partisan.

Rallying the insurgents
By early 1967, Eugene McCarthy had joined a small group of House and Senate members who were questioning the Johnson administration’s war policies. The low-keyed, laconic Minnesota senator would become increasingly outspoken in opposition to the war as the U.S. casualties mounted.

Later in the year, he started hinting that he might challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Then, on Nov. 15, the hinting ended when McCarthy formally announced that he would be a candidate for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.

Antiwar activists in the Minnesota DFL, who had already signed on to a dump-Johnson movement, quickly coalesced behind McCarthy’s candidacy. “We were euphoric,” one of them recalled. “We had a candidate — an articulate, respected spokesman who would legitimize us, and we felt a special pride because our candidate was a Minnesotan.”

Now, the antiwar DFL insurgents had a rallying point. With their own candidate, they set their sights on the state’s March 5 precinct caucuses — the start of the multi-tiered political process that culminated in the selection of Minnesota’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention in August.

Establishment wasn’t ready to abandon Humphrey
The insurgents had their work cut out for them. Humphrey still garnered an enormous amount of goodwill in Minnesota, and the DFL establishment was not ready to abandon him and President Lyndon Johnson. In December, Humphrey delivered an impassioned two-hour endorsement of the administration’s Vietnam policy to the members of the DFL Central Committee. After his speech, committee members shouted their enthusiastic support for a resolution urging the renomination of the Johnson-Humphrey ticket.

As the March 5 precinct caucuses grew closer, DFL establishment leaders were confident they could turn back a challenge from the McCarthy supporters. In late February, following an out-state tour of local party groups, DFL chair Warren Spannaus declared that the McCarthy forces would get only six of the state’s 60 delegates to the national convention as a result of the precinct caucuses. Spannaus said the real battleground between the Humphrey and McCarthy forces was in the Twin Cities metro area, and that he saw no chance for the DFL insurgents to elect delegates outside the larger cities.

McCarthy supporters discounted Spannaus’ predictions and redoubled their effort to turn out their supporters for the March 5 grass-roots political meetings. On caucus night those efforts paid off when the insurgents prevailed throughout much of the state, winning the right to pick up at least 16 McCarthy delegates to the national convention, nearly triple the number predicted by Spannaus only a few days earlier. “Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn) dealt the Johnson administration a stinging setback, winning control of the Twin Cities’ three congressional districts and slicing deeply into the administration’s out state strength,” the Minneapolis Star reported on March 6.

Sen. Eugene McCarthy campaigning in New Haven, Conn., April 3, 1968.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Sen. Eugene McCarthy campaigning in New Haven, Conn., April 3, 1968.

Robert Kennedy vied with McCarthy for peace vote
While the McCarthy and Humphrey forces were battling each other in Minnesota in the spring and summer of 1968, Robert Kennedy was vying with McCarthy for the peace vote in other states, and Kennedy was gaining momentum. On the night of his greatest political triumph — his victory in the June 5 California primary — the brother of the slain president was himself assassinated while leaving the victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

“The death of Robert Kennedy propelled McCarthy to center stage as the only real alternative to Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic candidacy,” declared the noted American journalist Theodore H. White.

That center stage pushed McCarthy to victory in the New York primary on June 19, buoying the spirits of his supporters back in Minnesota. But those spirits were deflated when the McCarthyites learned that the New York State Democratic Committee had awarded their candidate only 15½ delegate slots out of a total of 65.

Selecting the delegates
In Minnesota, McCarthy supporters found that the delegate-selection process was also stacked against them as they prepared for the state DFL convention in St. Paul. Because a majority of the state delegates were pledged to Humphrey, his supporters were able to control all 20 at-large national convention delegates, who were to be selected by Minnesota’s state convention delegates. McCarthyite complaints about the winner-take-all system in 1968 laid the groundwork for a movement that emerged in the 1970s to reform the Democratic delegate-selection process.

As they would do later at the national convention in Chicago, the McCarthy delegates in St. Paul focused on Vietnam and their opposition to the Johnson-Humphrey administration’s policy. The convention’s Humphrey-dominated resolution committee had come up with a “unity” plank on the war, one that reflected the vice president’s position. The plank supported the administration’s decision to curtail bombing in North Vietnam, and called on all parties to “participate in the political life of the country.” The committee’s minority report, reflecting the views of the McCarthy supporters, called for a “complete end” to all bombing and “a total and unremitting commitment to complete withdrawal of all American forces.”

In the end, the convention approved the unity plank on a vote of 615 to 455. The McCarthyites’ unwillingness to compromise on the Vietnam resolution was the “final manifestation of their determination to go down to defeat rather than to compromise what they considered to be the ultimate issue of the McCarthy revolution,” observed the Minneapolis Star.

State’s 52 delegate votes split
With the conclusion of the state DFL convention on June 23, only one more party conclave remained on the 1968 political calendar — the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. Minnesota’s 52 delegate votes were split roughly 75 to 25 percent between Humphrey and McCarthy, with all of McCarthy’s 25 percent share won at the district level.

In late August, the Minnesota senator’s delegates left for the national convention in Chicago, still enthusiastic about their cause but knowing that they lacked the votes to succeed on the convention floor. By this time, even McCarthy appeared to be losing interest in his candidacy. At a campaign rally on the eve of the convention, the Minnesota senator addressed his supporters. “They were looking for a bust-out-of-the-corrals speech, but McCarthy wasn’t giving it,” Norman Mailer observed. “He talked mildly … ‘We’re not asking too much — just a modest use of intelligence.’ “

How does it feel to have two favorite sons?
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Later, Humphrey himself would reflect on his fellow Minnesotan’s appeal.

“Gene McCarthy and 1968 were made for each other,” Humphrey observed.

“Students … radicalized by years of sit-ins and demonstrations, affluent and mobile, rose in a great crusade. But the McCarthy movement was not just the exuberance of youth. It moved across many age groups in many places. Tired of the war, bored with political rhetoric, they found in the new face, quiet voice and subtle, enigmatic phrasing of Eugene McCarthy a leader worth following.”

Turmoil and unity
Humphrey went on to receive the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination at one of the party’s most tumultuous conventions in its history. While delegates were balloting and debating resolutions, police were continuing to battle with the antiwar protestors. The turmoil and anger exploding on the streets of Chicago found its way into convention hall when Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff used his nomination speech for George McGovern to decry what Ribicoff called “police Gestapo tactics” directed at the protestors. Glaring up at Ribicoff, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was said to be mouthing obsenities at the Connecticut senator in response to Ribicoff’s charge of Gestapo tactics.

With street battles still under way, the convention concluded with the obligatory show of unity as leading Democrats surrounded Humphrey and his vice presidential pick, Edmund Muskie, on the platform following the newly nominated presidential candidate’s acceptance speech. George McGovern was there, but Eugene McCarthy was notable by his absence. While the convention was winding down, McCarthy was meeting with protesters in Grant Park and calling for “a government in exile.” (During the campaign’s final days, McCarthy would offer a tepid gesture of support for Humphrey that provided little political momentum for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.)

Humphrey and his supporters left Chicago dispirited as they faced a three-way race for the presidency against the Republican’s Richard Nixon and Alabama’s George Wallace, whose third-party bid was threatening to drain blue-collar votes away from the Democrats.

‘A glum conclusion to a dismal week’
“It was a glum conclusion to a dismal week,” observed Humphrey’s biographer, Carl Solberg. “The nomination was his, but what was it worth? The party that had dominated politics for decades emerged so divided by the war, so discredited by the chaotic convention that the public lost confidence in its capacity to lead the country.”

Humphrey recognized his impossible predicament when he remarked, after returning home to Minnesota: “It’s as if we have been pushed off the rim of the Grand Canyon — and now we have to claw our way up the sides.” The Democratic nominee’s predicament was only made worse by his ties to an unpopular president who seemed to be dragging him down to defeat.

Despite a campaign plagued with in-fighting during its early days and sagging polls showing him running 15 points behind Nixon, Humphrey started clawing himself back up to the rim as the November election grew closer.

New energy
The Democrats’ presidential candidate and his campaign received a new burst of energy from a well-received speech on Vietnam that the candidate delivered in early October. That speech, in Salt Lake City, enabled Humphrey to distance himself from the Johnson’s war policies, subtly and deftly, without breaking his ties to the administration.

Still, in the final days of the days of the campaign, he remained optimistic, buoyed the enthusiasm of the crowds and re-energized in what was now a two-man race with Richard Nixon.

On election day, Nov. 5, Humphrey returned to his home in Waverly, Minn., to cast his vote in the tiny Maryville Township Hall. By then he was apprehensive about the outcome of the election.

“I knew it was the moment of my life,” he later wrote. “When I marked my ballot, I had the feeling that it was more or less life and death. … I very much wanted to win, yet I knew it was almost beyond my reach. I had the feeling even then that I might not make it.”

Humphrey’s premonitions were justified. In the end, Richard Nixon pulled ahead, winning the presidency. Humphrey had come close in the popular count, trailing Nixon by only about 500,000 votes, but he lost badly in the Electoral College, where Nixon won 32 to states to Humphrey’s 13. George Wallace ran a distant third, carrying five southern states including his home state of Alabama.

“We had come fast and well, but we had not come far enough fast enough,” Humphrey later observed. He had not achieved his ultimate goal, but his public life was not yet over.

Political renewal
The McCarthy-Humphrey battle of 1968 did have one lasting impact on the Minnesota DFL and the Democratic Party as a whole. It led to a new, more equitable delegate-selection process that abolished winner-take-all election contests. These reforms were spearheaded by a commission led by South Dakota’s George McGovern and Minnesota’s Donald Fraser.

Hubert Humphrey would return to the Senate in 1970, filling the seat vacated by Eugene McCarthy. A newly unified DFL, which only two years earlier seemed on the brink of destruction, would elect a young charismatic governor, Wendell Anderson, and enter one of its most productive periods.

Under Anderson’s leadership, the state would overhaul its system for financing public education under a plan that came to be known as the Minnesota Miracle.

This article incorporates material originally included in Iric Nathanson’s Fall 2004 article for Hennepin History Magazine, “The other war of 1968.”

Monday: ‘Into the bright sunshine’ — Hubert Humphrey’s civil-rights agenda
Tuesday: Loyal lieutenant: On the ticket with LBJ
Wednesday: Two favorite sons: the Humphrey-McCarthy battle of 1968
Thursday: The final chapter: Hubert Humphrey returns to public life