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Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005 | The Nation

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Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005

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On Election Day, Humphrey lost to Nixon by 500,000 votes. McCarthy was partly responsible for Nixon's victory, Sandbrook suggests, because he did not endorse his old Minnesota mentor until a week before the election, and he failed to campaign for the Democratic candidate or rally his supporters in key states --New Jersey, Illinois and California--that Nixon carried by small margins.

In this 2004 review of Dominic Sandbrook's biography of McCarthy, Jon Wiener assesses the man and his impact on liberal politics.

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Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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But the problem was not just Nixon's razor-thin margin of victory. The larger problem was that the Democrats lost 12 million votes between 1964 and 1968--"the greatest electoral disaster of the century," Sandbrook calls it--and he again holds McCarthy partly responsible. He cites Joseph Rauh, who warned in October 1967 that an antiwar challenge to LBJ would break "the liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance since the 1930s." Of course, that turned out to be true. The argument here is that the McCarthy campaign, in concentrating on Vietnam, turned away from the white working-class voters drawn to the "law and order" issue--which was what got Nixon elected.

And even on Vietnam, Sandbrook argues, McCarthy was a disaster: Instead of ending the war, he helped prolong it. If Humphrey had been elected, Sandbrook thinks, he almost certainly would have ended the war sooner than Nixon did. Sandbrook quotes Blair Clark, who helped run the '68 McCarthy campaign (and who later became editor of this magazine); he said in 2000 that the campaign "definitely had a deleterious effect on America."

It's a harsh judgment--the same judgment that Humphrey Democrats, like my father, offered the day after Nixon won in 1968. What the antiwar sons told their DFL fathers in 1968 is still true today: McCarthy was not wrong to challenge Johnson on the war. Johnson was wrong in not shifting his Vietnam policy to negotiations and withdrawal. Humphrey was wrong in failing to come out against the war soon enough to win over the antiwar Democrats. Had Humphrey won, he might have ended the war sooner than Nixon, but who knows? And thirty-five years later, both the sons and the fathers can agree that any Democratic President would have faced the split between antiwar reform Democrats and working-class whites who voted for Wallace in 1968 and eventually for Reagan. That split was hardly Gene McCarthy's creation.

After 1968, McCarthy began a long downhill slide into "irrelevance and obscurity." He ran for President again and again, getting fewer votes each time. In 1976 The New Republic, run by his old supporter Martin Peretz, endorsed him for President against Jimmy Carter, but he won less than 1 percent of the vote. However, McCarthy fought in the courts to get independent candidates on the ballot, and his success paved the way for Ross Perot and then Ralph Nader. In 1980 McCarthy hit bottom when he endorsed Ronald Reagan--because he hated Carter. In 1982 he ran for the Senate again in Minnesota, explaining, "I've suggested to Democrats that if they'll forgive me for being right, I'll forgive them for being wrong." He lost the primary.

Sandbrook's massively researched and footnoted book is soft on the larger socio-political context, and hard in its conclusion: McCarthy wasted his talent. The potential he demonstrated in New Hampshire to become a great liberal leader was undercut by his vanity, his arrogance and his personal vendettas. He never injected new ideas into political debate, he sponsored no significant legislation and his one great moment--New Hampshire in 1968--ended in disaster for his party, his country and, we could add, for the people of Vietnam as well.

Readers may disagree about 1968, but Sandbrook is effective in conveying the sense of a wasted talent. Garry Wills said it best: "Eugene McCarthy spent a good deal of his time trying to prove that he was too good for politics. What use was that? Most of us are too good for politics; but we do not make a career of demonstrating it."

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