Flashback Friday: McCarthy's Announcement 50 Years Ago Kicked Off Turbulent Political Year

December 01, 2017 10:29 AM

The year 1968 would go down as one of the more tumultuous politically in modern U.S. history.

And in many ways, it was an announcement by Minnesota's senior U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy 50 years ago this week that served as the opening act to that drama.


It was on Nov. 30, 1967, when McCarthy, motivated by his opposition to the Vietnam War, announced his plans to challenge incumbent President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in several state primaries early the following year.

"My decision to challenge the President's position has been strengthened by recent announcements from the administration of plans for continued escalation and intensification of the war in Vietnam," McCarthy said in announcing his plans. "And, on the other hand, by the absence of any positive indications or suggestions for a compromise or negotiated political settlement."

Opposition to the war had been steadily rising, and was leading to a split in the Democratic Party. McCarthy, a Watkins native and a former standout athlete at St. John's University, was not the first choice of some in the anti-war movement. There had been efforts to persuade then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York to mount a bid.

But with Kennedy still reluctant to stage a challenge to a sitting president of his own party, McCarthy stepped in to fill the void.

He himself had been considered as a possible vice presidential pick for Johnson in 1964 before that slot went to fellow Minnesota Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

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"In some ways, McCarthy was a reluctant politician," said Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor at St. John's and the director of the school's Eugene McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement.

"He appreciated the role of government, but he was also so many other things," Lindstrom said. "He was a poet. He'd been an athlete. He had many other interests."

McCarthy had announced plans to challenge Johnson in Wisconsin, Oregon, California and Nebraska. But states like New Hampshire, the site of the first Presidential primary, were soon added.

His campaign gradually picked up momentum, driven in part by the support of young activists. Some of them cut their hair, shaved mustaches and trimmed beards and sideburns to campaign "Clean for Gene."

In New Hampshire, McCarthy ended up garnering almost 42 percent of the vote and nearly upset Johnson. 

That success was enough to convince Kennedy to enter the race himself on March 16, 1968. Those events, in turn, led to Johnson's dramatic announcement on March 31 that he would not seek another term.

Just two days later, McCarthy overwhelmingly won the Wisconsin primary with 56 percent of the vote.

With Johnson out of the race, Kennedy and McCarthy slugged it out in various primaries while Humphrey entered the race as well, working to gain support in states where party leaders - not primaries - still decided delegate votes.

McCarthy bested Kennedy when they went head-to-head in Oregon, but Kennedy won head-to-head matchups in Indiana, Nebraska and California. It was on the night of the California primary on June 4 when Kennedy was assassinated after completing his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Humphrey, with the backing of the administration, arrived at the Democratic Convention as the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. He won on the first ballot, though the convention itself was accompanied by widespread protest and violence on the streets of Chicago.

The strife divided the party not only nationally, but in Minnesota as well. DFL leaders looked on as two of the state's favorite sons battled against one another.

"It's a small world in politics, and in Minnesota political circles it was even smaller," Lindstrom said. "So there was a definitely a frosty relationship between the McCarthy and Humphrey camps. And I'm not sure that ever really resolved itself."

McCarthy wouldn't get around to endorsing Humphrey over Richard Nixon until October, after Humphrey had distanced himself from Johnson and the war. Humphrey ended up losing, though by a margin of just over 500,000 in the popular vote.

McCarthy did not run for reelection to the Senate in 1970. Humphrey won the DFL nomination and the general election, returning to the body he'd left to serve as vice president. McCarthy went on to mount several long-shot presidential bids, and he also unsuccessfully sought the DFL Senate nomination in 1982.

That nomination went to current Gov. Mark Dayton, who went on to lose to Republican incumbent Dave Durenberger.

However, the lasting impact of his 1968 insurgent campaign remains.

"Everyone will have their own interpretation of McCarthy's legacy, or anybody's legacy for that matter," Lindstrom said. "It's very subjective.

Lindstrom added, "But at the McCarthy Institute, we look at his life and legacy as someone who challenged the status quo. Not because it was convenient or popular, or really all that much fun. But because of the courage of his convictions."


Frank Rajkowski

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