On 12 March 1968, in snowy New Hampshire, Eugene McCarthy turned the world on its head. In surely the most dramatic Democratic presidential primary ever, the record books show that he actually finished second, with 42 per cent of the vote compared to 49 per cent for the incumbent, Lyndon Johnson. Never has the word "victory" had a hollower ring.
The stunning performance of a detached, rather eccentric Minnesota senator laid bare the public unease at LBJ's Vietnam policies for all to see. Within four days, a newly emboldened (some would say opportunistic) Robert Kennedy had entered the race. On 31 March, a president who had seemed invincible when the year began announced he would not run for a second full term.
McCarthy, branded by the White House a "peace-at-any-price fuzzy thinker", went on to trounce Johnson in the Wisconsin primary on 2 April. Despite Kennedy's charisma and connections, he was running neck and neck with RFK when the latter was assassinated after the California primary on 4 June 1968. Paradoxically, McCarthy's own hopes of the nomination died then as well, but the impact of his candidacy did not.
His few months in the limelight had exposed the split in the Democratic party. The fury of McCarthy's idealistic young supporters at the prospect of the nomination going to the establishment's man, the Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, contributed to the mayhem at the Chicago convention - which in turn helped rally America's "silent majority" around the eventual winner, Richard Nixon. None of this would have happened without McCarthy's candidacy.
He announced it on 30 November 1967, as de facto leader of a handful of anti-war Senators who had failed to secure a floor debate on Vietnam, despite the growing and evident futility of the conflict. Few gave him a chance. But thousands of volunteer workers, many of them students, flocked to his side, manning phone banks and canvassing on the streets of New Hampshire's towns, to further the cause of the man they called "Clean Gene".
Has a protest candidate - even the Howard Dean of late 2003 - ever caught the mood of the moment as McCarthy did in 1968? By his own admission, he knew he would never win the presidency, and did not want the job in any case. In many respects indeed, he was an improbable politician, less hustler than scholar, a minor poet in his own right who on the campaign trail preferred the company of Robert Lowell and Robert Frost to press conferences with reporters.
His reaction to Johnson's sensational withdrawal, as the press besieged McCarthy at his hotel in Wisconsin, was typical. "Just tell the TV stations to put on a little music till I get there," the Senator sent word - "or maybe they should read a little poetry. This is a night for reading poetry, maybe a little Yeats." Lowell once called McCarthy "a one-man Greek chorus" and later that night the Senator duly produced a metaphor from Greek tragedy to describe Johnson's fall, "like Orestes being smothered by the Eumenides".
The bitterness and tumult of 1968 led the Democrats to reform their entire nomination process, eliminating the sway of party barons and fixers, and increasing the role of ordinary Democratic voters. The system, which threw up George McGovern in 1972 and shifted the entire party leftward, remains in force to this day. Again, without Eugene McCarthy, the change might not have happened.
At heart he was a northern liberal, of Irish ancestry, who grew up in small-town Minnesota during the great Depression. He was a devout Catholic, at one point taught by Benedictine monks, who spent a year in a monastery as he considered entering the priesthood. After leaving college, he became a teacher before enlisting in the US Army and serving as an intelligence officer during the Second World War.
Politics beckoned, and in 1948 McCarthy was elected to the House of Representatives. There, he helped form the Democratic Study Group which drew up alternative policies to those of the Eisenhower administration. A decade later he won a Senate seat, as one of the Democrats' "Class of 1958" - a group of 13 newly elected liberals whose other luminaries included Ed Muskie of Maine and Robert Byrd of West Virginia (today the Senate's longest-sitting member).
As a Senator, McCarthy often seemed bored and distracted, his eyes straying to higher things. His greatest impact came far from Capitol Hill, at the 1960 Democratic convention where he delivered an impassioned nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson. In the event, John Kennedy beat Stevenson for the prize. By backing the wrong horse, McCarthy may have cost himself a senior place in the Kennedy administration.
He could be his own worst enemy. He was a tantalising, often frustrating man. McCarthy was an idealist, of undoubted intelligence and courage, and with a laser wit that earned him the nickname of "the Needle". But he was also contrary, thin-skinned, often over-proud, on occasion even spiteful.
Many believe that old resentments coloured his 1968 run for the White House. According to some historians, he never forgave LBJ for not picking him as his Vice-President in 1964, and then forcing him to deliver the speech placing the name of Humphrey, his rival, into nomination. McCarthy got on with John Kennedy, but detested his brother. "Bobby was very destructive, he destroyed other people," he said in a 1996 interview. After the 1968 campaign, these views soon became academic.
With his decision not to seek re- election to the Senate in 1970, McCarthy's serious political career was over. A writer during his Washington years, he was even more prolific afterwards, writing over 20 books of history, economics, and personal memoirs - including one in 1982 with the revealing title Complexities and Contraries: essays of mild discontent. He was also a poet of some accomplishment.
Some politicians, like boxers, do not know when it is time to hang up the gloves. McCarthy embarked on a bizarre political afterlife, making half-hearted bids for the White House in 1972, 1976, 1988 and even 1992. In 1982 he tried unsuccessfully to recapture his Senate seat; two years before that, such was the old liberal's dislike of his fellow Democrat that he actually endorsed the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan for president.
In 1992, like a ghost drawn back to haunt the scene of his greatest triumph, McCarthy entered the New Hampshire primary in which he had stunned the world almost a quarter of a century earlier. It was the first presidential campaign I covered as a reporter, and positively McCarthy's last as a candidate.
I remember him sitting in the bar of the Sheraton Wayfarer hotel, white-haired and 76 years old, holding court for the few who had time to listen. In the end he won 211 votes, even in terms of sentimental attachment a meagre harvest indeed. It was an unworthy but oddly fitting end to a political career best described as a magnificent failure.
Rupert CornwellReuse content