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Eugene Joseph "Gene" McCarthy (March 29, 1916–December 10, 2005) was an American politician, poet, and a long-time member of the United States Congress from Minnesotamarker. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959 and the U.S. Senate from 1959 to 1971.

In the 1968 presidential election, McCarthy was the first candidate to challenge incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, running on an anti-Vietnam War platform. The unexpected vote total he achieved in the New Hampshire primary led Johnson to withdraw from the race, and lured Robert F. Kennedy into the contest. He would unsuccessfully seek the presidency five times altogether.


Early life

The son of a deeply religious mother of German descent and strong-willed father of Irish descent who was a postmaster and cattle buyer known for his earthy wit, McCarthy grew up in Watkins, Minnesotamarker, as one of four children and attended St. Anthony's Catholic School in Watkins. A bright student who spent hours reading his aunt's Harvard Classics, he was deeply influenced by the monks at nearby St. John's Abbey and University. McCarthy spent nine months as a novice before he left the monastery, causing a fellow novice to say, "It was like losing a 20-game winner."

McCarthy graduated from Saint John's Preparatory School marker in 1931. He was a 1935 graduate of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesotamarker. McCarthy earned his master's degree from the University of Minnesotamarker in 1939. He taught in various public schools in Minnesotamarker and North Dakotamarker from 1935 to 1940, when he became a professor of economics and education at St. John's, working there from 1940 to 1943.

He was a civilian technical assistant in the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department in 1944 and an instructor in sociology and economics at the College of St. Thomasmarker, St. Paul, Minnesotamarker from 1946 to 1949.

Entry into politics

McCarthy was a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Representing Minnesota's Fourth Congressional District, McCarthy served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959. In 1958 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He was a member of (among other committees) the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He was introduced to a larger audience in 1960 when he supported twice-defeated candidate Adlai Stevenson for the nomination. He claimed during his speech "Do not reject this man who made us all proud to be called Democrats!" He was later considered as Lyndon Johnson's running mate in 1964, only to have fellow Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey chosen.

McCarthy was a long time member of the Board of Advisors of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Along with Ted Kennedy, he was one of the original co-sponsors of the Immigration Act of 1965. He later regretted this, noting that "unrecognized by virtually all of the bill's supporters, were provisions which would eventually lead to unprecedented growth in numbers and the transfer of policy control from the elected representatives of the American people to individuals wishing to bring relatives to this country."

The 1968 campaign

In 1968, McCarthy ran against incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, with the intention of influencing the federal government — then controlled by Democrats — to curtail its involvement in the Vietnam War. A number of anti-war college students and other activists from around the country traveled to New Hampshiremarker to support McCarthy's campaign. Some anti-war students who had the long-haired appearance of hippies chose to cut their long hair and shave off their beards, in order to campaign for McCarthy door-to-door, a phenomenon that led to the informal slogan "Get clean for Gene."

McCarthy's decision to run was partly an outcome of opposition to the war by Wayne Morse of Oregonmarker, one of the two Senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Morse gave speeches denouncing the war before it had entered the consciousness of most Americans. Following that, several politically active Oregon Democrats asked Robert Kennedy to run as an anti-war candidate. Initially Kennedy refused, so the group asked McCarthy to run, and he responded favorably.

McCarthy declared his candidacy on November 30, 1967 saying, "I am concerned that the Administration seems to have set no limit to the price it is willing to pay for a military victory." His candidacy was dismissed by political experts and the news media, and given little chance of making any impact against Johnson in the primaries. But public perception of him changed following the Tet Offensive (January 30 - September 23, 1968), the aftermath of which saw many Democrats grow disillusioned by the war, and quite a few interested in an alternative to LBJ. McCarthy said "My decision to challenge the President's position and the administration's position has been strengthened by recent announcements out of the administration. The evident intention to escalate and to intensify the war in Vietnam, and on the other hand, the absence of any positive indication or suggestion for a compromise or for a negotiated political settlement."

As his volunteers led by youth coordinator Sam Brown went door to door in New Hampshire, and as the media began paying more serious attention to the Senator, McCarthy began to rise in the opinion polls. When McCarthy scored 42% to Johnson's 49% in the popular vote (and 20 of the 24 N.H. delegates to the Democratic national nominating convention) in New Hampshire on March 12 it was clear that deep division existed among Democrats on the war issue. By this time, Johnson had become inextricably defined by Vietnammarker, and this demonstration of divided support within his party meant his reelection (only four years after winning the highest percentage of the popular vote in modern history) was unlikely. On March 16 Kennedy announced that he would run, and was seen by many Democrats as a stronger candidate than McCarthy.

On March 31, in a surprise move, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. Following that McCarthy won in Wisconsinmarker where the Kennedy campaign was still getting organized. Although it was largely forgotten following subsequent events, McCarthy also won in Oregon against a well-organized Kennedy effort.

Even as McCarthy styled himself the clean politician, however, he dished it out, too. He mocked Robert Kennedy and his supporters. A major gaffe occurred in Oregon, when McCarthy sniffed that Kennedy supporters were "less intelligent" than his own and belittled Indiana (which had by then gone for Kennedy) for lacking a poet of the stature of Robert Lowell—a friend of McCarthy's who often traveled with him.

Quite a few of the people who had joined McCarthy's effort early on were Kennedy loyalists. Now that Kennedy was in the race, many jumped ship to his campaign, and they urged McCarthy to drop out and support Kennedy for the nomination. However, McCarthy resented the fact that Bobby had let him do the "dirty work" of challenging Johnson, and then only entered the race once it was apparent that the President was vulnerable. As a result, while he initially entered the campaign with few illusions of winning, McCarthy now devoted himself to beating Kennedy (and Hubert Humphrey, who entered the race after LBJ removed himself) and gaining the nomination.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, long a champion of labor unions and civil rights, entered the race with the support of the party "establishment," including most members of Congress, mayors, governors and labor unions. He entered the race too late to enter any primaries, but had the support of the president and many Democratic insiders. Robert Kennedy, like his brother before him, planned to win the nomination through popular support in the primaries. McCarthy and Kennedy squared off in Californiamarker, each knowing that the state would be the make or break for them. They both campaigned vigorously up and down the state, with many polls showing them neck-and-neck, and a few even predicting a McCarthy victory.

However, a televised debate between them began to tilt undecided voters away from the Minnesota Senator. McCarthy made two ill-considered statements: that he would accept a coalition government that included Communists in Saigon and that only the relocation of inner-city blacks would solve the urban problem. Kennedy pounced, portraying the former idea as soft on communism and the latter diagnosis as a scheme to bus tens of thousands of ghetto residents into white, conservative Orange Countymarker. In the end, McCarthy came off as both remote on the issues and ill-tempered toward his opponent. Kennedy took the crucial California primary on June 4, but was shotmarker after his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angelesmarker and died soon afterwards.

In response McCarthy refrained from political action for several days, but did not remove himself from the race. McCarthy's reaction to the assassination was singularly hardhearted. One aide recalled him sneering about his fallen rival, "Demagoguing to the last." Another heard him say that Kennedy "brought it on himself"—implying, by perverse logic, that because Kennedy had promised military support to the state of Israel, he had somehow provoked Sirhan Sirhan, the Arab-American gunman who killed him.

Despite strong showings in several primaries — indeed, he won more votes than any other Democratic candidate — McCarthy garnered only 23 percent of the delegates at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, largely due to the control of state party organizations over the delegate selection process. After the Kennedy assassination, many delegates for Kennedy chose to support George McGovern rather than McCarthy. Moreover, although the eventual nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was not clearly an anti-war candidate, there was hope among some anti-war Democrats that Humphrey as President might succeed where Johnson had failed — in extricating the United States from Vietnam. McCarthy eventually gave a lukewarm endorsement of Humphrey.

Although McCarthy did not win the Democratic nomination, the anti-war "New Party", which ran several candidates for President that year, listed him as their nominee on the ballot in Arizonamarker, where he received 2,751 votes. He also received 20,721 votes as a write-in candidate in Californiamarker.

Following the 1968 election, McCarthy returned to the Senate, but announced that he would not be running for reelection in 1970, to the disappointment of many Minnesotans. He disappointed many more people nationwide by declining to take a leadership role in Congress against the war. Indeed, he almost seemed to take a turn to the political Right during his final two years in the Senate, as witnessed by his opposition to President Richard Nixon's Family Assistance Plan, a form of "reverse income tax" to help the poor get off of welfare and a program similar to a plan he had proposed several years earlier.


McCarthy took up writing poetry in the 1960s, and his increased political prominence lead to increased interest in his published works. "If any of you are secret poets, the best way to break into print is to run for the presidency," he wrote in 1968. He published a collection of poetry entitled Cool Reflections: Poetry For The Who, What, When, Where and Especially Why of It All (ISBN 1575535955.)

Private life

In 1969, McCarthy left his wife, Abigail, after 24 years of marriage, but the two never divorced. McCarthy was rumored to be having a longterm affair with prominent columnist and journalist Shana Alexander. However, according to Dominic Sandbrook's recent McCarthy biography, it was the late CBS News correspondent Marya McLaughlin that McCarthy was actually involved with, in a long-term relationship that lasted until Ms. McLaughlin's death in 1998.

After leaving the Senate in 1971, McCarthy became a senior editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishing and a syndicated newspaper columnist.

Presidential campaigns 1972 and 1976

McCarthy returned to politics as a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972, but he fared poorly in New Hampshiremarker and Wisconsinmarker and soon dropped out.

After the 1972 campaign, he left the Democratic Party, and ran as an Independent candidate for President in the 1976 election. During that campaign, he took a libertarian stance on civil liberties, promised to create full employment by shortening the work week, came out in favor of nuclear disarmament, and declared whom he would nominate to various Cabinet postings if elected. Mainly, however, he battled ballot access laws that he deemed too restrictive and encouraged voters to reject the two-party system.

His numerous legal battles during the course of the election, along with a strong grassroots effort in friendly states, allowed him to appear on the ballot in 30 states and eased ballot access for later third party candidates. His party affiliation was listed on ballots, variously, as "Independent," "McCarthy '76," "Non-Partisan," "Nom. Petition," "Nomination," "Not Designated," and "Court Order". Although he was not listed on the ballot in Californiamarker and Wyomingmarker, he was recognized as a write-in candidate in those states. In many states, he did not run with a vice presidential nominee, but he came to have a total of 15 running mates in states where he was required to have one. At least eight of his running mates were women.

Nationally McCarthy received 740,460 votes for 0.91% of the total vote finishing third in the election [25189]. His best showing came in Oregonmarker where he received 40,207 votes for 3.90% of the vote [25190].

Further activism

He opposed Watergate-era campaign finance laws, becoming a plaintiff in the landmark case of Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), in which the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker held that certain provisions of federal campaign finance laws were unconstitutional. McCarthy, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union, philanthropist Stewart Mott, the Conservative Party of the State of New York, the Mississippi Republican Party, and the Libertarian Party, were the plaintiffs in Buckley, becoming key players in killing campaign spending limits and public financing of political campaigns.

In 1980, he endorsed Ronald Reagan for the presidency.

In the 1988 election, his name appeared on the ballot as the Presidential candidate of a handful of left-wing state parties, such as the Consumer Party in Pennsylvaniamarker and the Minnesota Progressive Party in Minnesota. In his campaign he supported trade protectionism, Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative and the abolition of the two-party system. He received 30,905 votes.

In 1992, returning to the Democratic Party, he entered the New Hampshire primary and campaigned for the Democratic Presidential nomination, but was excluded from the first and therefore most important televised debate by its moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC. McCarthy, along with other candidates who had been excluded from the 1992 Democratic debates (including "Billy Jack" actor Tom Laughlin, two-time New Alliance Party Presidential candidate Lenora Fulani, former Irvine, Californiamarker mayor Larry Agran, and others) staged protests and unsuccessfully took legal action in an attempt to be included in the debates. Unlike the other excluded candidates mentioned, McCarthy was a long term national candidate and unlike all those who were in the debates, including Bill Clinton, McCarthy had run for the office in previous elections.

In 2000, McCarthy was active in the movement to include Green candidate Ralph Nader in the Presidential debates.


McCarthy died of complications from Parkinson's disease at the age of 89 on December 10, 2005 in a retirement home in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.marker, where he had lived for the previous few years. His eulogy was given by former President Bill Clinton.

Following his death the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University dedicated their Public Policy Center the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy. The Democratic party memorialized his passing during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, on August 28, 2008. The memorial included pictures of several prominent Democrats who had died during the 4-year period between conventions displayed on a large screen. During Senator McCarthy's tribute, the screen displaying his photograph left off his first name, calling him "Senator Joseph McCarthy." Joseph McCarthy was actually an entirely different notable Senator, famous for his anti-Communist campaigning and sparring with journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Presidential election results

McCarthy's presidential campaign results
Election Party votes %
1968 (various) 25,634 0.04%
1976 independent 740,460 0.91%
1988 Consumer 30,905 0.03%

Books by Eugene McCarthy

  • Frontiers in American Democracy (1960)
  • Dictionary of American Politics (1962)
  • A Liberal Answer to the Conservative Challenge (1964)
  • The Limits of Power: America's Role in the World (1967)
  • The Year of the People (1969)
  • Mr. Raccoon and His Friends (1977; Academy Press Ltd., Chicago, IL) Children's stories, illustrated by James Ecklund
  • A Political Bestiary, by Eugene J. McCarthy and James J. Kilpatrick (1979) (ISBN 0-380-46508-6)
  • The Ultimate Tyranny: The Majority Over the Majority, by Eugene J. McCarthy (1980) (ISBN 0-151-92581-X)
  • Gene McCarthy's Minnesota: Memories of a Native Son (1982) (ISBN 0-86683-681-0)
  • Complexities and Contrarities (1982) (ISBN 0-15-121202-3)
  • Up Til Now: A Memoir (1987)
  • Required Reading: A Decade of Political Wit and Wisdom (1988) (ISBN 0-15-176880-3)
  • Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work, by Eugene McCarthy and William McGaughey (1989) (ISBN 0-275-92514-5)
  • A Colony of the World: The United States Today (1992) (ISBN 0-7818-0102-8)
  • Eugene J. McCarthy: Selected Poems by Eugene J. McCarthy, Ray Howe (1997) (ISBN 1-883477-15-8)
  • No-Fault Politics (1998) (ISBN 0-8129-3016-9)
  • 1968: War and Democracy (2000) (ISBN 1-883477-37-9)
  • Hard Years: Antidotes to Authoritarians (2001) (ISBN 1-883477-38-7)
  • Parting Shots from My Brittle Brow: Reflections on American Politics and Life (2005) (ISBN 1-55591-528-0)


  1. His time was then - and now
  2. A Personal Note on the Passing of Eugene McCarthy
  3. A Colony of the World: The United States Today, p.57.
  4. Get Clean For Gene: Eugene McCarthy's 1968 Presidential Campaign - George Rising
  5. "1967 Year In Review,"
  6. "After the Assassination: How Gene McCarthy's response to Bobby Kennedy's murder crippled the Democrats.", Slate.
  7. "After the Assassination: How Gene McCarthy's response to Bobby Kennedy's murder crippled the Democrats.", Slate.
  8. [1]
  9. McLaughlin's CBS News obituary
  10. James Kilpatrick recalls their relationship
  12. David Leip's Atlast of U.S. Presidential Elections. "1976 Presidential General Election Results," (2005).
  14. MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour (2005-12-12). Online NewsHour: Remembering Sen. Eugene McCarthy — December 12, 2005. PBS.
  15. New York Times
  16. David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. "1988 Presidential General Election Results," (2005).

Other Sources

  • Dominic Sandbrook, Eugene McCarthy and The Rise and Fall of American Liberalism (2005).

External links

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