When I read that Gene McCarthy died on December 10, I remembered how he
had called me last year after I wrote about him in The Nation. I
had said he was "a mysterious and frustrating figure," and that
"nothing he did before 1968 hinted that he would become the liberals'
antiwar leader...and nothing he did after 1968 accomplished much of
anything." (The piece was a review of a biography by Dominic
Success Like Failure," which was published May 3, 2004.)
McCarthy made history in 1968 when he became the only Democrat with the
courage to mount an antiwar challenge to LBJ's reelection. His victory in
the New Hampshire primary in February 1968 was the brightest moment of a
campaign that soon turned dark, with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in
June and the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago
But I couldn't forget the critique of the 1968 McCarthy campaign made by
my father, a good Minnesota Democrat. Look at how the 1968 campaign
ended, he said: McCarthy split the Democrats, Nixon won in November, and
he kept the war going for another five years. Fifteen thousand more
killed, and--we might add--Americans killed something like a million more
Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.
I replied that Humphrey was to blame for failing to adopt an antiwar
position and thereby losing the election.
The mystery of Gene McCarthy was that before 1968 he had never been a
maverick, a rebel or a peacenik. Throughout his career in the House and
Senate before 1968, he had been a conventional cold war liberal, a fierce
anti-Communist. His transformation into the standard-bearer of the liberal
antiwar movement is one of the great stories in American politics.
The other great mystery is what happened to him after 1968, when McCarthy
began a long downhill slide into what Sandbrook called "irrelevance and
obscurity." He ran for President again and again, getting fewer votes each
time. He fought in the courts to get independent candidates on the
ballot, and his success paved the way for Ross Perot and then Ralph Nader
in 2000. It was not a happy picture.
Garry Wills said it best: "Eugene McCarthy spent a good deal of his time
trying to prove that he was too good for politics. What use was that? Most
of us are too good for politics; but we do not make a career of
I ended my piece with that quote. A few days after it appeared, I got a
voice mail: "Jon, this is Senator McCarthy in Washington. I'd like to
talk to you about your piece in The Nation."
When I called him back, he said, "Your piece was pretty good. I
appreciated your taking it up. This Sandbrook says I'm guilty of every
capital sin except avarice. Who am I going to get to defend me? Most of
them are dead. Sandbrook says even my poetry is no good. Should I reply
that some poets thought some of it is okay?"
We chatted about friends of my family in St. Paul who had
worked with him in the old days; then it was time to go. "If you don't
mind," he said, "I'll send you a copy of the testimonials from when I
left the Senate. Twelve or fifteen people there said I was a pretty decent
But in New Hampshire in February 1968, he was more than a decent guy--he
was a true hero of the antiwar movement. That's the Gene McCarthy I want
to remember today.
Jon Wiener is a contributing editor to The Nation magazine and teaches 20th century US history at the University of California - Irvine. He sued the FBI for their files on John Lennon — the story is told in his book Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files and at the website www.LennonFBIfiles.com. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before most of the outstanding issues were settled in 1997. Wiener has participated as a speaker in more than 100 conferences, including conferences on censorship and the arts at the Columbia University School of Journalism, and on “Capitalism and its Culture” at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
He’s been a host at KPFK since 1999. During the Democratic National Convention in L.A. in 2000 he worked as co-anchor of the Pacifica broadcast of the Shadow Convetion; he also broadcast election night in the 2000 election — and announced that Al Gore had won Florida. He was on the air on Sept. 11, 2001 — “the most difficult show I’ve ever had to do,” he says.
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