Eugene McCarthy has always been a mysterious and frustrating figure. Nothing he did before 1968 hinted that he would become the liberals’ antiwar leader and challenge an incumbent Democratic President; nothing he did after 1968 accomplished much of anything. Dominic Sandbrook skillfully conveys the events and the experience as well as the arguments of that year. Although he is a Shropshire lad born in 1974, Sandbrook argues like my father, born in Duluth in 1921 and a good Minnesota Democrat: He insists we focus on how the story of 1968 ended. The split among Democrats led by McCarthy ended up with Nixon in the White House. Nixon kept the war going for another five years, during which 15,000 more Americans were killed, and–we might add–during which Americans killed something like a million more Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.
If ’68 ended badly, it began with “a triumph of heroic magnitude”–Newsweek‘s description of McCarthy’s showing in the New Hampshire primary that February. The senator from Minnesota had been the only one willing to challenge Lyndon Johnson, to make Vietnam the issue in the upcoming presidential election. Although McCarthy didn’t win the popular vote–he got 42 percent in the Democratic primary–he did win twenty of the state’s twenty-four convention delegates. Johnson saw the writing on the wall, and rather than lose to McCarthy a few weeks later in the Wisconsin primary, he announced he was withdrawing from his own re-election campaign. Nothing like it had ever happened before in American politics, and nothing has since.
There are some surprises, Sandbrook shows, in the story of McCarthy’s 1968 triumph in New Hampshire: First, the vote for McCarthy was not primarily an antiwar vote. Exit polls suggested that most voters didn’t know where he stood on it. That’s because his TV ads made it impossible to tell whether he was for or against the war. Pollsters concluded that “his vote was an anti-Johnson vote, not an antiwar vote.” Voters were anti-Johnson because of urban riots and “crime in the streets” as well as because of Vietnam.
Another surprise: the media liked McCarthy in New Hampshire in 1968. In the Democratic primaries this year, the media killed Howard Dean after he led a youthful antiwar insurgency within the party that had some similarities to McCarthy’s. But back in 1968, the national press was “extremely generous” to McCarthy–Sandbrook couldn’t find any hostile coverage. He doesn’t try to explain why.
In addition to the surprises, there are also some secrets behind the 1968 McCarthy campaign. The first is that it was not a grassroots, shoestring volunteer effort. In fact, it was the most expensive and best-financed campaign in the history of Democratic primaries until that time. McCarthy’s money came primarily not from small donations but rather from big contributors–especially from Wall Street. Why so many on Wall Street wanted to dump Johnson in favor of an antiwar liberal is a question Sandbrook does not consider. The five biggest contributors, at $100,000 each, included Martin Peretz, then a young Harvard instructor married to the Singer sewing machine heiress, and later publisher of The New Republic; he would remain a supporter of McCarthy’s presidential campaigns on and off for the next twenty years.