Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005
Why did McCarthy challenge Johnson? He had never been a maverick, a rebel or a peacenik. Throughout his career in the House and Senate before 1968, Sandbrook shows, he had been a conventional cold war liberal, fiercely anti-Communist and voting the AFL-CIO line on domestic issues. His transformation into the standard-bearer of the liberal antiwar movement is the central story of the book.
Unlike the other Catholic antiwar senator of 1968, Bobby Kennedy, who joined the race four days after the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy experienced little in his early life to suggest he might end up in Washington. He grew up in a farming town in southern Minnesota suffering through the Depression but got the best education rural Catholic Minnesota could provide: He was sent to the Benedictine monks at St. John's Abbey and university. St. John's had an "enormous impact" on him and "irrevocably molded his character." Later, when he went to Washington, McCarthy still went to mass every day.
The Catholic intellectual world of the 1930s in which McCarthy grew up was committed to a radical vision of social justice. McCarthy's mentor at St. John's wrote in 1938 that capitalism was dying, "and should die." McCarthy's impulse at this point was to separate himself from a sinful bourgeois world. In 1941 he decided to study for the priesthood at St. John's, but the life of the novitiate didn't work out; he spent the war years working in the War Department in Washington; then got married and with his wife, Abigail, founded a Catholic anticapitalist rural commune in Minnesota. That didn't work out either, and McCarthy ended up teaching sociology at St. Thomas, a small Catholic college in St. Paul, where he found happiness at last.
But instead of living an uneventful life as a Catholic intellectual in St. Paul, he was recruited in 1948 to run for Congress and fight the Communists in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. During the hard years of the Depression, Minnesota radicals and progressives had flocked to the left-wing Farmer-Labor Party, which had held the governorship from 1931 to 1936. The Minnesota branch of the Communist Party was one of the country's most active in the 1930s and '40s, and even though it had only 300 members, they played a strong role in the Farmer-Labor Party. In 1944, with the Communists and the CIO in pursuit of the Popular Front alliance with liberals, the Farmer-Labor Party fused with the Democratic Party. Even today the Minnesota Democrats call their party "the DFL."