Editorial: The power of a lone, principled politician
Eugene McCarthy turned war opponents into a political force.
Published: November 08, 2007
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Clean for Gene
"In New Hampshire, McCarthy was the ideal person to lead the vanguard of a generation hoping to define itself by living outside as many norms as possible."
Charles Kaiser, "1968 in America."
Anniversaries are often tinged with mixed emotions. One with many colors will be marked this month. Forty years ago, a principled Minnesota maverick, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, took on the leaders of his own Democratic Party -- including fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey -- with a presidential bid aimed at ending the Vietnam War.
The occasion evokes in Minnesotans past a certain age a complex stew of memories, as they recall how their state -- perhaps more than any other -- became a highly personalized battleground over American policy in Southeast Asia. The anniversary also cries out for comparisons with today's unpopular war and those who are trying to end it.
Opposition to the Vietnam War was rising, but it had not yet fully ripened in Minnesota in the fall of 1967. In launching an intraparty challenge of President Lyndon Johnson that November, McCarthy was stepping far outside the comfort zone most politicians choose to occupy, and inviting his Minnesota allies to join him out in the cold.
Many of those who did were youthful idealists. They cut their hair, became "clean for Gene," and threw themselves into his New Hampshire primary campaign. They clashed with supporters of the Johnson-Humphrey administration's war policy, many of whom were people in their own party, their own communities and their own households.
Today, history judges America's involvement in Vietnam negatively and puts McCarthy's presidential candidacy in a mostly favorable light. It galvanized swelling antiwar sentiment into a political force. The campaign's strong New Hampshire showing is credited for pushing Johnson out of the 1968 presidential race and starting the nation on its long road home from an unwise war.
History must also note the high personal cost of a principled political stand. Relationships torn in 1968 took many years to mend, if they were mended at all. McCarthy was never fully forgiven by Humphrey's DFL. He left office in 1970, moved to Virginia, wrote tart, incisive poetry and commentary, and died in 2005 at age 89.
Those who enter politics to be loved won't see in McCarthy a desirable model. But for those politicians, present and future, who aim to create a stronger America and a more peaceful world, McCarthy is required study. He demonstrated that while standing apart from one's allies for the sake of principle can be a lonely act, it can also be a very effective one.