Eugene McCarthy: The Last Heroic Democratic Presidential Aspirant Remembered

January 15, 2006
Hundreds Honor McCarthy as Man Who Changed History
By JOHN FILES
New York Times

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 – Eugene J. McCarthy, the Minnesota senator who upended President Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election effort amid the Vietnam War tumult of 1968, was remembered at a service on Saturday as a man of sharp intellect, broad curiosity and a deep sense of justice and compassion.

An audience of about 800, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, Ralph Nader and John D. Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s last chief of staff, gathered at the National Cathedral here, where lawmakers, relatives and friends spoke of a humble and independent-minded leader who opposed the Vietnam War and believed that politics could make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.

Mr. Clinton, who eulogized Mr. McCarthy, said he had been instrumental in building pressure to stop the war.

“It all began with Gene McCarthy’s willingness to stand alone and turn the tide of history,” Mr. Clinton said.

With the war taking thousands of American and Vietnamese lives, Mr. McCarthy, an unabashed liberal, stoked a national debate over the war and over the model of an all-powerful presidency. He challenged Johnson in the New Hampshire primary in 1968, and Johnson, facing almost certain defeat, withdrew from the race. The Democratic party machine then forced the nomination of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to face President Richard M. Nixon. But Mr. McCarthy became the quintessential candidate of the Vietnam War protest movement.

“We do not need presidents who are bigger than the country, but rather ones who speak for it and support it,” Mr. McCarthy told his supporters, the “Clean for Gene” legions who embraced his candor.

On Saturday, Mr. Clinton spoke of Mr. McCarthy’s central role in the upheaval that occurred in 1968, a year during which Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. “One thing remained constant,” Mr. Clinton said. “The country had turned against the war.”

Mr. McCarthy died last month of complications related to Parkinson’s disease at an assisted-living home in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. He was 89.

Mr. McCarthy took on a contrarian role in the Democratic Party, even endorsing Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate for president in 1980, rather than Jimmy Carter. Indeed, in 1998 Mr. McCarthy called for the resignation of President Clinton, who he said had “been running a pretty messy presidency in terms of constitutionality and tradition.”

He was a habitual presidential campaigner, running in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992. Some of the audience wore McCarthy campaign buttons and nodded approvingly at the testimonials. Others were there for a bit of a history lesson.

Bill Gallery, 23, who lives in Washington and works at an international development firm in Bethesda, Md., said: “I had read about McCarthy, and I knew about his role in Democratic and progressive politics. But I thought it would be interesting and, well, educational to come and hear those who knew him.”

Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, told the audience, “Gene McCarthy showed us moral force in politics without preaching.”

Two of Mr. McCarthy’s children, Michael and Ellen, also spoke at the service. Mr. McCarthy’s son joked that his father had once suggested the Freedom of Information Act ought to afford people the right to review their obituaries before they die.

“He thought it would make reporters be more careful,” he recalled his father saying.

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