Eugene J. McCarthy 1916 - 2005
Eugene Joseph McCarthy, the maverick Senator who challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic Presidential nomination at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, died December 10 at the age of 89.
McCarthy had more of an impact on the nation than many presidents, like Jimmy Carter, for example. McCarthy actually saved the American political system by providing an avenue for anti-war protest within the democratic process.
His mobilizing students to protest the Vietnam War led directly to lowering the voting age to 18 and the end of the military draft. Ironically, McCarthy was considered a potential Vice-Presidential candidate to run with LBJ in 1964. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, a mentor and Senatorial colleague from Minnesota, got the nod and became the losing Democratic standard bearer in 1968. Circumstances could have easily reversed their roles.
When asked by a reporter what made him think that President Johnson, considered at that time an invincible master politician who had won election three years earlier by the biggest popular vote mandate in history, could be successfully challenged at the polls, McCarthy replied, "When I saw that you could walk into any bar in the country and call the President a bum and that no one would offer to take you outside and punch you in the nose, that's when I knew he was vulnerable."
Another contentious issue in 1968 was draft deferments for teachers, and college and graduate students. This meant that the burden of the war fell disproportionately on the sons of the working class born in 1946, 1947 and 1948, who did not attend college full-time. In fact, a boy born in 1947 who did not go to college had a 1 in 8 chance of being killed or wounded in Vietnam. The Vietnam casualties, while proportionately lower than World War II and Korea, fell much more heavily on certain demographic groups.
McCarthy's young campaign workers, motivated by high ideals, could not fail to notice the injustice and inequity of the draft system that exempted the well-educated middle and upper class sons while the danger and burden of the war fell mostly on minority and working class kids. "That was the intent of the legislation," McCarthy told them. "That is why it is called Selective Service, not the Military Manpower Procurement Act. The purpose of the act, in addition to providing soldiers, was to allocate manpower in the civilian economy by providing a non-monetary benefit (a draft exemption) to get people to go into poorly paid but important, badly needed fields like teaching."
So it should not have come as any surprise that the anti-Vietnam War protesters had been educated by the Korean War draft dodgers, those college graduates who went into teaching to avoid fighting in Korea. Look in a 1950's or 1960's yearbook of any top flight public high school in the United States. Look at the faculty. Many went to Ivy League colleges: Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Michigan, Rice, and so on. Look at today's high school year books. Where have the Ivy League graduates gone? Into law, finance and business to make a fortune.
Few Ivy League graduates go into teaching today. That is another reason why the cost of public education is soaring. With no draft teachers can and do demand more money, even as the quality of some of the teachers falls compared with the past.
McCarthy's candidacy exposed many of the absurdities in American life. The kids he mobilized were appalled that they were old enough to be drafted to fight and die for the democracy of the Vietnamese, but were not old enough to buy a beer or to vote for their own commander-in-chief.
In 1968, the majority of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention were selected by party officials, not by primary voters. McCarthy's candidacy changed the party rules so that winning candidates had to win primaries to become the nominee of the party.
McCarthy showed that the political system was a viable place for the aggrieved to go to seek remedies. The anti-war movement set the tone for the civil rights, women's and sexual liberation struggles for the rest of the century. McCarthy did not invent or unleash these forces. He just showed how they could be peacefully channeled into successful political action.
It should be remembered that the first race riot in modern history took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania right after Barry Goldwater was nominated for president by the Republicans in 1964. The Republicans had abandoned the blacks, no wonder the blacks rioted. The southern racist democrats became Republicans.
The Status Quo
Nixon's election, for which some blame McCarthy, and his subsequent resignation from office, unleashed a wave of "reforms" designed, essentially, to entrench the Republicans and Democrats in positions of permanent power and prevent an insurgent like McCarthy from ever challenging the status quo again.
But McCarthy could see that the system was not working for huge portions of the population. McCarthy was dealing with the environmental and sprawl issues in 1968. The Bush Administration is like the Stalin Administration in Russia during the 1930's; it has politicized science.
In 2004, Howard Dean modeled his campaign on McCarthy's 1968 challenge. The internet enabled him to mobilize in spite of the campaign finance laws that had been designed to prevent grass roots mobilization. Like McCarthy, Dean failed to win the nomination and the war went on. Kerry's loss is proof that McCarthy did not cost Humphrey the election.
When the history of the 20th century is written, McCarthy will fall in the top rank of important political figures. Although McCarthy is given credit for forcing Johnson out of the 1968 race, one story suggests that when Johnson went to see off a group of soldiers heading for second and third tours in Vietnam, their less than deferential and respectful demeanor to the Commander-in-Chief made Johnson realize he had lost the support of the people.
Ironically, both the soldiers who fought the war in Vietnam and the activists who fought against that war, were destroyed by it. Only people who avoided it altogether and went on with their lives were considered successes. The United States now has leaders who are not only willing to sacrifice American lives, but who use it as a tactic to win elections.
Austin McCarthy, Eugene's brother, said of his sibling, "My brother was a great man. He was not a politician. He was a statesman." Had McCarthy not been a statesman, people like George W. Bush could have easily been dead cannon fodder in Vietnam.
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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf