Senator McCarthy's Campaign Had a More Profound Impact Than Sanders' Revolution

While there are similarities between the two campaigns - namely the underdog factor, an incendiary issue and the involvement of young voters - the McCarthy campaign of 1968 still claims a much more profound impact on electoral politics not only in its less-than-one-year existence but for generations that followed.
04/13/2016 03:24 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2017
Sen. Eugene McCarthy, his hopes of becoming the Democratic presidential candidate, discusses his defeat in this August 29, 19
Sen. Eugene McCarthy, his hopes of becoming the Democratic presidential candidate, discusses his defeat in this August 29, 1968 photo. (AP Photo)

Political pundits and others have attempted to compare the current presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders to the 1968 candidacy of Sen. Eugene McCarthy. "Not so fast, my friend," as the great college football analyst Lee Corso would say. While there are similarities between the two campaigns - namely the underdog factor, an incendiary issue and the involvement of young voters - the McCarthy campaign of 1968 still claims a much more profound impact on electoral politics not only in its less-than-one-year existence but for generations that followed.

The McCarthy campaign story is chronicled in my new film "Hi, Gene! Meet The Real Senator McCarthy." The half-hour version is available for free streaming here, and the hour version will be made available to PBS stations and other non-commercial outlets later this year.

I first met Sen. McCarthy, better known to many as Gene, when I was working as a producer at WCCO-Radio in Minneapolis in the early 1990s and he appeared on a weekend show I produced. At the time, I fathomed myself a future documentary filmmaker and asked McCarthy if he thought there was a story that needed to be told. Without missing a beat, he said his 1968 campaign had been overlooked by historians. Upon further research, I concurred and set out to capture the story of his campaign. Yes, like a good wine, the project was allowed to age a few years before completion!

Here are factors, some more obvious than others, that separate the McCarthy campaign of 1968 and the Sanders campaign of 2016.

  • McCarthy, a democrat, was the first candidate to officially challenge President Lyndon Johnson on the issue of the war in Vietnam. Here was a case of a senator from Minnesota challenging a sitting president of his own party, after others like Robert Kennedy and George McGovern declined to run. Kennedy, of course, later changed his mind.

  • What made the McCarthy campaign so unique is the manner in which it got young voters actively involved in the political process, many for the first time. McCarthy offered the youth a means to affect political change by working within the system. Thousands of students volunteered for the McCarthy campaign not only in New Hampshire, site of the first primary, but throughout the country. Many of these students cut their hair and shaved their beards, literally getting "Clean For Gene."
  • Women, too, became a voting faction of their own, joining forces with Abigail, the Senator's wife, as part of the "Women For McCarthy" movement. As LBJ advisor George Reedy said during my interview with him in 1993, "A lot of men might find a patriotic reason for their sons to go to war. There aren't many women who do." Thus began an entirely new bloc of voters.
  • So often today campaigns are defined only by their final outcome. Few, if any, recent presidential campaigns that fell short of victory offered any precipice for meaningful change or lasting impact. McCarthy did not get his party's nomination for president. But by the time of the Democratic convention in Chicago, McCarthy and his supporters had already etched their mark in history. The McCarthy campaign forced President Johnson to withdraw his bid for re-election, and it also created a contingent of supporters who remained active in politics for years to follow.

    Still to be determined - whether in victory or defeat - is if the Sanders campaign of 2016 can bring substantive change, if the Vermont senator can inspire his troops in the war against wealth disparity to work within our democratic system to effectively alter policies. That will determine if legitimate comparisons can be made between the McCarthy campaign of 1968 and the Sanders candidacy of 2016.