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McCarthy takes a risk

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1968 campaign
Eugene McCarthy speaks at St. John's University in Minnesota during his 1968 presidential campaign.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Eugene McCarthy was 51 years old when he launched his campaign for president in November 1967. The low-key Minnesota Democrat had served nearly 20 years in the Congress when he challenged President Lyndon Johnson's bid for re-election. 

MCCARTHY'S CAMPAIGN "ALMOST UNTHNKABLE"

McCarthy's opposition to the Vietnam war as the main issue. He blamed the war for what he called a deepening moral crisis.

"I am concerned that the administration seems to have set no limit to the price which it is willing to pay for a military victory," McCarthy said. 

"At that time that was almost unthinkable -- for a Democratic senator to run against the president of his own party, particularly a president as powerful as Lyndon Johnson," said journalist Al Eisele, who covered Eugene McCarthy for 40 years and wrote a book about the 1968 campaign. 

Shaking hands
McCarthy greets a crowd of enthusiastic supporters.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries

Eisele was at the press conference when McCarthy announced he would challenge President Lyndon Johnson in several presidential primaries.

"He had been making speeches prior to that, and public statements expressing his belief that the Vietnam War was immoral and that somebody needed to challenge the president on it," Eisele recalled. "There were antiwar activists who approached a number of senators who declined, including Robert Kennedy, who said they didn't want to run against Johnson. So, it was considered almost an act of political suicide for a Democratic senator to oppose Lyndon Johnson, but he did it -- and of course, changed the course of history."

McCarthy first entered politics in 1948. He was a college professor in St. Paul when he ran for Congress. McCarthy won that race and served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1958, he won a U.S. Senate seat.

Dominic Sandbrook wrote one of the most comprehensive McCarthy biographies in 2004. He says McCarthy was a popular and effective campaigner in his home state.

"He was extremely successful with Minnesota voters, because he was physically imposing and good looking. He could be a good speaker. He was obviously extremely articulate," said Sandbrook. "All those things made him an attractive candidate, and explain why he went into the House of Representatives and then into the Senate."

"CLASSIC MCCARTHY"  

In 1968, McCarthy proved to be a complicated and unpredictable presidential candidate. McCarthy simultaneously inspired and disappointed his followers during the nine-month campaign.

A sampling of comments from them.

"With McCarthy coming onto the scene, this incredible sense of hope emerged."

It was considered an act of political suicide for a Democratic senator to oppose Lyndon Johnson, but he did it -- and of course, changed the course of history.

"Sen. McCarthy made a great contribution in raising the issues."

"Sen. McCarthy had provided people with something in American political life that never had been there in this degree before."

"There was almost a pathological element in his self-righteousness. I don't think he ever wanted to be president of the United States." 

"He's a great guy, but a terrible candidate."   McCarthy's campaign announcement was decidedly understated.

"I'm hopeful that this challenge which I am making, which I hope will be supported by other members of the Senate and other politicians, may alleviate at least in some degree this sense of political helplessness, and restore to may people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government," McCarthy said.

"This is classic McCarthy," said Dominic Sandbrook. He says McCarthy's speech revealed a lot about the candidate and the way the campaign would play out in the months ahead.

"He defies the sort of popular wisdom and the expectations of the media by giving a very downbeat, low-key, almost pessimistic announcement. He doesn't say even really that he's a candidate for president, he just says he's going to be entering certain primaries," said Sandbrook. "I think that's because of the nature not only of McCarthy's own philosophy, which was to play everything down, but also it was designed to show that if he lost, it wouldn't be the end of the world."

"He didn't really take the campaign enormously seriously at this stage because nobody expected that he'd be able to beat Johnson," Sandbrook said. "He thought he'd raise the standard of the war in a few primaries and then that would be it. He didn't realize how well he would do."