Eugene McCarthy died last week at age 89, and should anyone have been surprised by the highly selective memory demonstrated by many in the media who eulogized the former Minnesota senator best remembered for his 1968 antiwar presidential candidacy?
How many Americans, for example, are aware that McCarthy, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, said that U.S. foreign policy – i.e., our being closely aligned with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians – was at least partially responsible for the atrocities? “You let a thing like that fester, you have to expect something like this to happen,” he told the Associated Press.
That statement was conspicuously missing in much of the coverage of McCarthy’s passing (while The New York Times saw fit to leave it out of its lengthy obituary, The Washington Post, to its credit, did include it in its obit).
McCarthy’s post-9/11 blame-the-victim mentality was eerily reminiscent of a little-known comment he made way back in that totemic year of 1968 upon first hearing of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, his main rival for the Democratic nomination.
McCarthy’s reaction to the news, notes Dominic Sandbrook in Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism:
did not endear him to his advisers. According to Blair Clark, McCarthy remarked, “He brought it on himself” while Curtis Gans heard him quietly muttering, “Demagoguing to the last.” McCarthy later admitted that this was indeed how he felt. Kennedy, he said, had played up his support for Israel in their televised debate: he therefore had only himself to blame for provoking [his assassin] Sirhan Sirhan.
The journalist Charles Kaiser (a former McCarthy supporter), in his book 1968 in America, wrote that “McCarthy’s explanation was one of the meanest interpretations of the tragedy ever articulated.” McCarthy, Kaiser continued, was “the only person to pin the blame for the shooting directly on its victim.”
McCarthy’s iconic status among aging liberal baby-boomers stems almost entirely from his showing in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary – he came shockingly close to defeating President Lyndon Johnson, who shortly afterward announced that he would no longer seek reelection – but a few important facts have been waylaid over the years.
First, McCarthy deliberately muted his antiwar position while campaigning in New Hampshire, concentrating on the more nebulous issues of “character and leadership.” In his television ads, writes Sandbrook, “it was impossible to tell whether McCarthy was for or against the war.”
Second, President Johnson, unlike McCarthy, was not on the ballot in New Hampshire (primaries had yet to achieve their present-day make-or-break importance), so each of his votes had to be a write-in. That’s still not a valid excuse for a sitting president’s failure to beat a challenger by more than seven percentage points, but it is something to keep in mind.
Third, polls in New Hampshire indicated that McCarthy’s near-victory was fueled in great measure by voters who felt the Johnson administration was not being aggressive enough in its prosecution of the war, and that many of those who voted for McCarthy would not have done so if they’d known he was a dove. Not a few New Hampshire McCarthy voters wound up voting in the November general election for either Richard Nixon or George Wallace, both hawks on Vietnam. So much for the Great Peace Crusade.
McCarthy’s path to the White House ran into a roadblock erected by Robert Kennedy, who rather opportunistically jumped into the race following New Hampshire, and after Kennedy’s death the party basically handed the nomination to vice president Hubert Humphrey, whose position on Vietnam was summed up in his description of the war as “our great adventure, and what a wonderful one it is!”
How minimal was McCarthy’s influence on the country at large? In 1972 – a full eight years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, four years after the Tet offensive and the media buzz generated by McCarthy in New Hampshire, three years after revelation of the My Lai massacre, and two years after the National Guard shootings at Kent State – the Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, running on an unambiguous vow to end the war, suffered a loss of staggering dimensions to President Nixon.