I opened up the L.A. Times to a very special treat this morning,Eugene McCarthy; Candidacy Inspired Antiwar Movement
I was reminded of things long forgotten and learned a thing or two as well.
Political scientist Steven S. Smith of Washington University in St. Louis told The Times on Saturday that McCarthy “remains the most important national symbol of the peace movement and the view that the U.S. reverts to the use of force too quickly. No one has symbolized that in American politics like McCarthy has.”
Gene McCarthy’s shining historical legacy will stand in stark contrast to the sorry record of George Bush:
Truculent as well as contrarian, McCarthy abruptly decided not to seek reelection to the Senate in 1970, disappointing many supporters who hoped he would use his office to continue to push for an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Humphrey reentered the Senate by winning the election to succeed McCarthy.
McCarthy ran for president in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992 but never came close to recapturing the constituency he had originally forged in New Hampshire.
Still, historians regard his 1968 candidacy as a turning point: a campaign that focused Americans’ previously scattered opposition to the war and pushed successive administrations to try to extricate U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. It also stands as one of the most vivid examples of successful grass-roots activism in U.S. politics.
Here’s a very interesting tidbit I wasn’t aware of:
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a volunteer in McCarthy’s 1968 campaign and a co-founder two years later of an antiwar group called the Marin Alternative, said: “During the Vietnam War, Eugene McCarthy had the courage to stand up and be a voice for peace. He will always be remembered for that.”
And here’s an eerie political parallel:
McCarthy, a relatively obscure senator who turned against the war as the United States escalated its troop buildup in the mid-1960s, entered the New Hampshire presidential primary partly to fill a vacuum: Antiwar politicians who were more prominent assumed that Johnson was unbeatable and decided not to challenge him.
McCarthy’s candidacy initially was dismissed as quixotic. Johnson’s biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that the challenge “was regarded by official Washington as a somewhat baffling exercise begun by a hitherto stable member of the Senate liberal establishment.“
I suspect there was a long forgotten radio talk show host at the time who accused Senator McCarthy of being “unhinged.” There was one group of Americans who flocked to McCarthy’s anti-war banner:
But McCarthy’s campaign caught fire with young people — the vanguard of opposition to the Vietnam War — and hordes of them traveled to New Hampshire to help his cause. They stuffed envelopes and passed out leaflets in what was dubbed “the children’s crusade.” Many cut their long hair and put on fresh clothes to help impress older voters. Be “Clean for Gene,” their watchword urged.
Eugene McCarthy’s influence would cast a long reform shadow over the Democratic Party that remains to this day. Here’s another eerie parallel:
[McCarthy’s candidacy] also helped inspire an overhaul of the political process, particularly within the Democratic Party. After antiwar demonstrations disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention, damaging the party politically, Democratic leaders revamped party rules to pare back the power of political professionals to determine candidates and platforms.
McCarthy had a very special essence that is sorely lacking in American politics today. Eugene McCarthy had the heart of a poet:
On the day his term officially ended in January 1971, McCarthy marked the occasion by reading to a Georgetown gathering from his new book of poetry, “Other Things and the Aardvark.” The opening lines of the book’s title page were wryly self-descriptive:
I am alone
in the land of the aardvarks.
I am walking west
all the aardvarks are going east
The aardvarks are free to go where they will. As for me, I’m walking west with the spirit of Eugene McCarthy, along a road that was once far less traveled and is now a well worn path. Thank-you Gene.