In 1964, Eugene McCarthy was running for reelection to the Senate. I was the Minneapolis Tribune's new state political reporter, covering the campaign. We spent a lot of time together. A few stories:
One day, he spoke at a big state convention, either the Farmers Union or the AFL-CIO. It was one of the major stops required of every DFL candidate in an election year. Afterward, McCarthy came into a small anteroom to get ready to leave.
Waiting there was Miles Lord, Minnesota's longtime motor-mouth attorney general. Lord was bucking for a federal judgeship and wanted the support of all the state's top DFLers as he made his case before President Lyndon Johnson.
Lord grabbed McCarthy's overcoat and held it for him. As the senator shrugged into it, his acid tongue showed no mercy. "Thanks, Miles," he said. "I hear that for Humphrey you carry the bags, too."
Later that fall, McCarthy was campaigning in southern Minnesota. Near day's end he suggested we visit a poultry plant owned by an old friend, supporter and contributor.
So here was this urbane member of the U.S. Senate, dressed in his gray flannel suit, dress shirt, tie and ever-present fedora, working his way along the conveyor line, ducking the plucked turkeys hanging from above, chatting with each worker (all women clad in white uniforms) as they gutted passing carcasses. McCarthy was at ease, enjoying himself. The workers loved it.
As we left, McCarthy said to me, "Beware of politicians who are uncomfortable in turkey processing factories." It seemed an odd comment.
Years later, after we both retired, I got a snail-mail note from McCarthy. He had sent along a page torn from a national magazine article about retired Gen. William Westmoreland. The former U.S. commander in Vietnam, one of McCarthy's favorite wartime antagonists, was capturing national attention while running for governor in South Carolina.
McCarthy had marked several paragraphs that described a difficult and uncomfortable time that the former general had while campaigning in a poultry processing plant. In the margin McCarthy had written a short note. "See? What did I tell you?" Westmoreland lost badly.
Everyone remembers 1968, when McCarthy challenged Johnson over the Vietnam War, forcing the president to step out of the race. McCarthy did not create the antiwar movement, but he gave it a sorely needed leader. Bobby Kennedy didn't enter the race until after McCarthy showed Johnson's vulnerability in New Hampshire. The McCarthy campaign sign I remember best from that long and savage year said, "He stood up alone." Believe it. What McCarthy did was demonstrate that the country was against the war. He changed history.
One is prompted to wonder: Where is that politician who will stand up alone today and change this country as McCarthy did?
Frank Wright is retired foreign correspondent and managing editor of the Star Tribune.
© 2006 The Star Tribune