So Eugene McCarthy has died at the age of 89. I wonder how many people remember him. In fact, when I first saw the headline, I momentarily confused him with George McGovern, another dove who lost to Richard Nixon in the 1972 election in the biggest landslide ever suffered by a Democrat.
McCarthy never won his party’s support to run for president. Democrats must have mixed feelings about him because he took a leading role in the protests against the Vietnam War which forced President Johnson not to seek re-election in 1968. Johnson, despite stepping up the war, was not a bad president on the home front. His vision of a Great Society, though denigrated now, did show concern for the welfare of the poor and the underprivileged.
McCarthy was, of course, a liberal and an intellectual. But he failed to win the Democratic nomination in the 1968 election as the peace candidate supported by students and anti-war activists much like Howard Dean in the 2004 election. The Democrats had others to choose from — Robert Kennedy and Johnson’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey. But Kennedy was shot dead by an Arab gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, during the primaries. Humphrey eventually ran for president after winning the infamous 1968 Democratic Chicago convention, where police beat up anti-war protesters, but he lost to the Republican challenger Nixon, who then became president.
Nixon went on to win a second term, defeating McGovern. The Democrats did not return to power until 1977 under Jimmy Carter, who was blown away after just one term by Ronald Reagan.
Bill Clinton is the only Democrat to win a second term as president in the past 50 years, while four Republicans have been re-elected president — Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61), Richard Nixon (1969-74), Ronald Reagan (1981-89) and George Bush (2001 till date).
McCarthy must share some of the blame for preventing Johnson from running a second time. According to the New York Times, he also endorsed Reagan against Carter in the 1980 election. But there can be no question about his liberalism and patriotism — the Vietnam War hurt America and not just Vietnam.
Interestingly both McCarthy and Humphrey served as senators from Minnesota, which voted Democrat — for John Kerry — in 2004. Minnesota naturally voted for Humphrey against Nixon in the 1968 presidential race but I wonder who was its choice at the Chicago convention — Humphrey or McCarthy. Humphrey won the convention handily but I couldn’t find any reference as to who won the Minnesota delegates. I am intrigued because seldom do two candidates come from the same state. But it was possible in 1968 because Humphrey was the vice-president and McCarthy the senator from Minnesota.