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December 14, 2005

Remembering Eugene McCarthy

John P. Snyder

It's a rather eerie coincidence that just when today's "White Flag" Democrats come to their party's forefront, their patron saint from another conflicted era departs this life.

It was nearly 38 years ago that former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D., MN) leaped from near obscurity to the political forefront by offering a plan to end the Vietnam War. His solution was to merely cut and run, to admit defeat and to surrender to the communists.

For turbulence and political upheaval, the year 1968 has few equals. His maverick candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for president made him, for most of that year anyway, a major player in that uncertain year.

His candidacy caught fire among the anti-war left and regular old liberals and college kids worried about the draft. They organized an effective machine that descended upon New Hampshire for the first presidential primary. Senator McCarthy won 42% of the vote against Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent president. Some believe this caused President Johnson to announce a few weeks later that he would not be a candidate for re election.

Recall that in 1968 Americans got their news from their daily newspapers or from Walter Cronkite on CBS, or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC. ABC News was a mere pup, with little ratings or impact. There weren't a lot of media outlets from which to choose.

And when "Uncle Walter" Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, decided to forgo any appearance of impartiality to rail about the Vietnam War on a nightly basis, any good news regarding our efforts in Vietnam were never reported.

It was at this time that a fault line was created that exists today in America. When America was engaged in military action, it was customary for its citizens to fall in line and support the endeavor and those who fought in it. No one wanted to aid the enemy.

That all ended with Gene McCarthy and the anti-war zealots. The North Vietnamese flag was frequently flown by protestors. Solidarity with the Viet Cong was commonly expressed.

Draft cards and American flags were routinely burned. President Johnson was vilified and despised. Almost forgotten now, but the Paris Peace talks were convened to find a peaceful way to end the conflict. Not much was accomplished because the North Vietnamese had no reason to bargain, not with the anti-war left chopping at the will of the American people to continue the fight. They figured all they had to do was wait it out.

Mr. McCarthy star began to fade when Sen., Robert F. Kennedy (D., NY) entered the fray.

On June 4th, 1968, Mr. Kennedy was struck down by a deranged Jordanian, Sirhan Sirhan, in the bowels of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. We can only speculate that had he lived would he have wrested the party's nomination for president from Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Whether he could have beaten Richard Nixon and third party candidate George Wallace for the presidency will remain a mystery.

For the rest of the year McCarthy's loyalist held on, but seemed to enter a stage of serious arrogance, conceit and self importance. While his minions were battling the Chicago police during the fabled Democratic Party convention of 1968, he was spotted around Washington squiring his on-the side-girlfriend (he was married to the lovely Abigail McCarthy at the time) at area restaurants and night spots. He withheld his support from Hubert Humphrey until days before the November general election. Mr. Humphrey went down to defeat.

He then became a Democratic Party version of Harold Stassen, running four more time for president, always seeking to rekindle the fire of 1968. By then most people had determined that he took himself way too seriously. I was struck by his frequent acerbic quips regarding his country and our leaders. He never had anything good to say about anyone.

He did blaze the path for today's "White Flag" Democrats, who give strength to our enemies by assuming that our country is the source of everything bad in the world. Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean and John Kerry are his offspring.

With a nod to full disclosure, I must admit that I, along with some of my family members, were smitten with the "McCarthy for President" fever. Close friends of ours, the Quigleys, were close relatives of his. We lived a few blocks from his Woodley Road home, in the shadows of the National Cathedral. I , along with friends, spent long hours at the Alban Towers apartments stuffing envelopes and making phone calls. I have in my possession a letter from Senator McCarthy thanking me for all my hard work on his behalf. I was 13 at the time.

I will always recall gathering with friends outside his house as he returned from the campaign after Bobby Kennedy was murdered. "Go home and pray for America" he urged us.

Had he become president that same request would become more urgent.

(Editors Note: Senator McCarthy died Sunday at the age of 89.)

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