Tags: Presidential History | eugene mccarthy | george mcgovern | richard nixon | new hampshire

50 Years Ago: Eugene McCarthy's Role in Primary That Changed History

Image: 50 Years Ago: Eugene McCarthy's Role in Primary That Changed History
Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (right) joins Sen. George McGovern on the stump Oct. 3, 1972. (Bill Chaplis/AP)

Monday, 12 Mar 2018 11:28 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Few presidential primaries have had the impact on American politics as one in New Hampshire 50 years ago today.

As The New York Times, CBS News, and other outlets reported in retrospectives this weekend, legions of anti-Vietnam War activists carried the obscure Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., to a stunning showing (42 percent) against President Lyndon Johnson (49 percent).

McCarthy's performance did nothing short of change the face of Democratic politics in 1968 and beyond. Two days after the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., suddenly decided to reverse his long-standing refusal to run and became a candidate. On March 31, Johnson chose the better part of valor and announced he would not seek re-election.

McCarthy and Kennedy battled it out in the primaries, with RFK scoring a crucial victory in California that many felt spelled his nomination — until his tragic assassination that evening. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not entered a single primary, wrapped up the Democratic nomination but led a dispirited party to defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon.

A lot of tumult, all right. But what is little reported is McCarthy, who started it all, was a fourth or fifth choice of the so-called "dump Johnson" movement. Moreover, by all accounts, he was a terrible campaigner.

Sam Brown, then a Harvard Divinity student and later head of the federal agency ACTION, recalled to Newsmax the efforts of anti-Vietnam War activists to find a challenger to LBJ in the primaries in mid-1967.

"[Future New York Rep.] Allard Lowenstein was the real force in our movement, and I was involved," he told me. "Curtis Gans [a leader in the liberal Americans for Democratic Action] was also a leader and Harold Ickes Jr. [later deputy chief of staff to President Clinton] was in New York coordinating the rest of us."

The "dump Johnson" group's first choice to run was, of course, Robert Kennedy, a sworn enemy of the president.

"There were a lot of meetings with Sen. Kennedy, but he refused to run because he felt a race against Johnson would be perceived as personal," Brown said.

The group sounded out Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and found the civil rights leader, who had recently come out against the Vietnam War, uninterested. Retired Gen. James Gavin, who had powerfully denounced the Vietnam War, was interested but would not run as a Democrat. ("Do you see yourself getting the Republican nomination?" asked Lowenstein).

Lowenstein and company even went to economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was born in Canada and thus constitutionally barred from running for president.

Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., apologized to fellow anti-war Democrat McCarthy for sending Lowenstein to see him.

"Not at all," McCarthy said. "I may do it."

"He had voted right on civil rights and come out against Vietnam early," said Sam Brown, "but beyond his very eloquent speech nominating Adlai Stevenson for president in 1960, he wasn't known for much. But he was a two-term senator, and we needed a candidate."

Declaring his candidacy for President in November, McCarthy proved an aloof campaigner in the Granite State. A devout Catholic, McCarthy would grow upset with staffers who filled his schedule on Sundays and left no time for him to attend Mass.

"Let's say he was selective about how to spend his energy," Brown remarked. "He made sure we limited the number of events. He felt above it all."

Except for times he pitched in softball games and played hockey with a local team, the serious McCarthy never took off his jacket and tie.

If McCarthy felt above it all, the young cadres of anti-war activists did not. Every weekend, busloads from campuses across the country brought hundreds of eager campaigners to forge the so-called "children's crusade" to defeat Johnson.

"We knew that long hair and a beard would be a turnoff to folks in New Hampshire when they canvassed for McCarthy," Brown noted. "So, we made sure if they were going door-to-door, they were clean shaven. I always wore a tie. And those who wouldn't shave, we hid them in the back room to work phone banks, write up 3x5 cards on potential backers — that stuff. Remember — we didn't have computers then."

There were also no regulations on federal campaign spending. So six millionaires, including philanthropist Stewart Mott and Stride Right shoes magnate Arnold Hiatt, put up what is estimated to be $1 million to underwrite the insurgent McCarthy campaign.

In later years, as a private citizen, McCarthy would become a plaintiff in cases against post-Watergate rules and regulations on campaign finance. He referred to his funding by a handful of wealthy people as "venture capital" and often remarked he could never have challenged a sitting president under the present limitations on individual contributions to federal candidates.

Johnson had not officially decided whether to run and was not on the primary ballot. But New Hampshire's Democratic hierarchy, led by Gov. John King, and organized labor opted for a campaign to write in the president's name on the Democratic ballot and urge supporters to sign pledge cards saying they supported LBJ.

"Whatever happened to the secret ballot?" blared McCarthy posters blasting the pledge cards. The candidate himself quipped it reminded him of the way they put a brand on cattle in Texas.

On March 12, McCarthy drew a stunning 42 percent of the vote to LBJ's 49 percent (all write-ins) and most of the rest — incredibly — write-ins for Republican Nixon.

The McCarthy camp fielded 24 candidates for 24 delegate slots. The Johnson forces listed more than 40 names for the slots and thus diluted their strength. McCarthy won 20 of the 24 delegates.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The anti-war movement never truly took over the Democratic Party in 1968. But it did succeed in "dumping Johnson." More important, the delegates committed to McCarthy, Kennedy, and Kennedy-stand-in McGovern managed to cobble together a slight majority  —by less than 100 votes of the full convention — to create a commission to study reforms of the party's rules for nominating candidates.

This led to far less power for party organizations, quotas for minorities and women in delegate selection, and far more primaries than the dozen held in 1968. With the exceptions of the more moderate Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, all Democratic nominees for president to this day would come from the party's left wing.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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On this date in history, as The New York Times, CBS News, and others reported in retrospectives, anti-Vietnam War activists carried the obscure Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., to a stunning showing (42 percent) against President Lyndon Johnson (49 percent).
eugene mccarthy, george mcgovern, richard nixon, new hampshire
Monday, 12 Mar 2018 11:28 AM
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