Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, 89, Dies
Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, 89, Dies
By FREDERIC J. FROMMER, Associated Press Writer 1
hour, 21 minutes ago
WASHINGTON - Former Minnesota Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy,
whose insurgent campaign toppled a sitting president
in 1968 and forced the Democratic Party to take
seriously his message against the Vietnam War, died
Saturday. He was 89.
McCarthy died in his sleep at assisted living home in
the Georgetown neighborhood where he had lived for the
past few years, said his son, Michael.
Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson
for the 1968 Democratic nomination during growing
debate over the Vietnam War. The challenge led to
Johnson's withdrawal from the race.
The former college professor, who ran for president
five times in all, was in some ways an atypical
politician, a man with a witty, erudite speaking style
who wrote poetry in his spare time and was the author
of several books.
"He was thoughtful and he was principled and he was
compassionate and he had a good sense of humor," his
When Eugene McCarthy ran for president in 1992, he
explained his decision to leave the seclusion of his
home in rural Woodville, Va., for the campaign trail
by quoting Plutarch, the ancient Greek historian:
"They are wrong who think that politics is like an
ocean voyage or military campaign, something to be
done with some particular end in view."
McCarthy got less than 1 percent of the vote in 1992
in New Hampshire, the state where he helped change
history 24 years earlier.
Helped by his legion of idealistic young volunteers
known as "clean-for-Gene kids," McCarthy got 42
percent of the vote in the state's 1968 Democratic
primary. That showing embarrassed Johnson into
withdrawing from the race and throwing his support to
his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey.
Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York also decided to seek
the nomination, but was assassinated in June 1968.
McCarthy and his followers went to the party
convention in Chicago, where fellow Minnesotan
Humphrey won the nomination amid bitter strife both on
the convention floor and in the streets.
Humphrey went on to narrowly lose the general election
Richard Nixon. The racial, social and political
tensions within the Democratic Party in 1968 have
continued to affect presidential politics ever since.
"It was a tragic year for the Democratic Party and for
responsible politics, in a way," McCarthy said in a
"There were already forces at work that might have
torn the party apart anyway the growing women's
movement, the growing demands for greater racial
equality, an inability to incorporate all the demands
of a new generation.
"But in 1968, the party became a kind of unrelated
bloc of factions ... each refusing accommodation with
another, each wanting control at the expense of all
Although he supported the Korean War, McCarthy said he
opposed the Vietnam War because "as it went on, you
could tell the people running it didn't know what was
In recent years, McCarthy was critical of campaign
finance reform, winning him an unlikely award from the
Conservative Political Action Conference in 2000.
In an interview when he got the award, McCarthy said
that money helped him in the 1968 race. "We had a few
big contributors," he said. "And that's true of any
liberal movement. In the American Revolution, they
didn't get matching funds from George III."
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, McCarthy said the
United States was partly to blame for ignoring the
plight of Palestinians.
"You let a thing like that fester for 45 years, you
have to expect something like this to happen," he said
in an interview at the time. "No one at the White
House has shown any concern for the Palestinians."
In a 2004 biography, "Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and
Fall of Postwar American Liberalism," British
historian Dominic Sandbrook painted an unflattering
portrait of McCarthy, calling him lazy and jealous,
among other things. McCarthy, Sandbrook wrote,
"willfully courted the reputation of frivolous
In McCarthy's 1998 book, "No-Fault Politics," editor
Keith C. Burris described McCarthy in the introduction
as "a Catholic committed to social justice but a
skeptic about reform, about do-gooders, about the
power of the state and the competence of government,
and about the liberal reliance upon material cures for
McCarthy was born March 29, 1916, in Watkins, a
central Minnesota town of about 750. He earned degrees
from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., and
the University of Minnesota.
He was a teacher, a civilian War Department employee
and college economics and sociology instructor before
turning to politics. He once spent a year in a
He was elected to the House in 1948. Ten years later
he was elected to the Senate and re-elected in 1964.
McCarthy left the Senate in 1970 and devoted much of
his time to writing poetry, essays and books.
With a sardonic sense of humor, McCarthy needled
whatever establishment was in power. In 1980 he
Ronald Reagan with the argument that anyone was better
than incumbent Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.
On his 85th birthday in 2001, McCarthy told the Star
Tribune of Minneapolis that President Bush was an
amateur and said he could not even bear to watch his
In an interview a month before the 2003 invasion of
Iraq, McCarthy compared the Bush administration with
the characters in the William Golding novel "Lord of
the Flies," in which a group of boys stranded on an
island turn to savagery.
"The bullies are running it," McCarthy said. "Bush is
McCarthy was an advocate for a third-party movement,
arguing there was no real difference between
Republicans and Democrats.
In 2000, he wrote a political satire called "An
American Bestiary," illustrated by Chris Millis, in
which high-level advisers are portrayed as park
pigeons "they strut and waddle" and reporters are
compared with black birds who flock together.
He blamed the media for deciding who is and is not a
serious candidate and suggested he should have kept
his 1992 candidacy a secret, since announcing it
publicly did no good.
McCarthy also ran for president in 1972, 1976 and
For McCarthy, the 1950s and 1960s were the Democratic
Party's high points because it pushed the Civil Rights
Act through Congress and championed national health
insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
"I think he probably would consider his work in civil
rights legislation in the 1960s to be his greatest
contribution," his son said Saturday.
The bad times, Eugene McCarthy said, began with
America's increased involvement in the Vietnam War and
the simultaneous failure of some of Johnson's Great
Society social programs.
Instead of giving people a chance to earn a living,
McCarthy said, the Great Society "became affirmative
action and more welfare. It was an admission the New
Deal had failed or fallen."
In recent years McCarthy had lived at Georgetown
Retirement Residence, an assisted living center in
Washington. He and his wife, Abigail, separated after
the 1968 election. She died in 2001.
Survivors include daughters Ellen and Margaret and six
grandchildren, Michael McCarthy said.
A private burial is planned for next week and a
memorial service in Washington will be scheduled,
Michael McCarthy said.
- Gene was the A-students' candidate in 1968. He has lived a great life,
and even figured to find the easy way out during his sleep. (I hope I
will be able to do the same when my time comes.)
I've always thought of him as the Howard Dean of his era. This is from
Kennedy tried to make light of his struggles. "Gene gets all the A
students and I get all the C students," he joked to an aide. But as
someone who had always banked on his youthfulness and intelligence,
Kennedy bristled at losing the some of the support of the
intelligentsia and college campuses. Still, Kennedy drew huge crowds,
and an unprecedented turnout of African American and Latino
supporters. He said of himself, "Let's face it, I appeal best to
people who have problems." Jack Newfield says "it was the most
emotional adulation, I've ever seen in politics." McCarthy, on the
other hand, had won very little support among African Americans and
No matter how people will judge him and his legacy, he will forever be
one of the favorite sons of the liberal state of Minnesota.