12/11/2005 02:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eugene McCarthy for President


I am wearing my McCarthy button one more time this weekend to commemorate the death of former Senator Eugene McCarthy, an event that is rapidly disappearing into the weekend news black hole. In 1968, McCarthy galvanized the nation, including me, with an unlikely challenge to President Johnson over the Viet Nam War. By winning 42% of the vote in the March New Hampshire primary, McCarthy caused Johnson to drop out and Robert Kennedy to drop in. I was very much for McCarthy.

The climax of the McCarthy-Kennedy primary campaign came in California, where the June 6th primary was on the heels of a surprising McCarthy win over Kennedy in Oregon the previous week. We thought McCarthy had a chance as we walked our precincts. McCarthy, who had basically run a one-issue campaign fueled by college students coming "clean for Gene," proved to be no match for the multi-ethnic, multi-issue pandemonium that was Kennedy’s campaign. I remember Kennedy's motorcade to a rally the Sunday before the election. The streets were packed and Kennedy stood in his car, supported by an arm around his waist, leaning over the screaming crowd that ruched in to touch his hand.

McCarthy's gatherings were much less frantic. Often, you could walk up to him, shake his hand and actually exchange a few words. His speeches were temperate, but he was clear: we needed to negotiate a settlement in Viet Nam, not just pour in more troops. (We actually had troops to pour in back then, thanks to the draft.) The rap on McCarthy was that he was too thoughtful to be president.

On the tragic election night, I attended McCarthy's vigil at the Beverly Hilton. Kennedy's clear victory had finished what remained of McCarthy's hopes, and McCarthy gave the standard "congratulations/ we will continue the fight" speech. An hour or so later, a few miles up Wilshire at the Ambassador, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Two months later, the world watched the Chicago Convention debacle, where a detached McCarthy lost to Hubert Humphrey, who had not seriously competing in the primaries at all. The DLC wishes it were still that easy.

From the vantage point of almost forty years later, McCarthy seems better credited with causing the reform of the Democratic Party nominating process than ending the war, which dragged on for years. However, at the time, he was at the center of a campaign to bring realism and nuance to American foreign policy, a battle that, rather obviously, goes on after his passing. It would be a fitting memorial for Democrats to continue that fight.