Monday, December 12, 2005

Eugene McCarthy, 1916-2005


"Clean Gene" McCarthy passed away on December 10, 2005 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 89.

Not to be confused with red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy from neighboring Wisconsin, Eugene McCarthy (born March 29, 1916 in Watkins, Minnesota) was a liberal college professor who once studied for the priesthood before being elected to the U.S. House (1948) and later the U.S. Senate (1958) as a Democrat from Minnesota. With fellow Democrat and Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, McCarthy helped shape the Minnesota Democratic Party as a clean and practical, yet visionary institution.

During the Johnson Administration, he became one of the foremost critics of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In what looked to be a hopeless campaign, McCarthy decided to challenge President Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 with the Vietnam issue as his centerpiece. To the surprise of the pundits, McCarthy nearly upset Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, getting 42% of the vote against a sitting president.

With success McCarthy found a more crowded field: seeing that Johnson was vulnerable, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced his intention to pursue the Democratic nomination -- also as a "peace" candidate. Johnson then declared that he would not seek the nomination himself, clearing the way for Vice-President Humphrey's entry into the race, although as a supporter of Johnson's Vietnam policy. In the chaos following the assassination of Senator Kennedy, McCarthy's candidacy fell prey to the Democratic Party machinery, and Humphrey was nominated, only to lose to Richard Nixon in the general election.

McCarthy retired from the Senate in 1970, lodged marginal candidacies for president in 1972, 1976 and 1988 (in the latter two campaigns as an independent) and otherwise concentrated on writing poetry and witty, critical commentary on the political process. During the 1976 campaign, McCarthy sued the Federal Election Commission over "matching fund" rules which favored major party candidates; and while the Supreme Court found the Commission to have been formed in an unconstitutional manner, it left room for a reformation of the Commission and did nothing to meet McCarthy's concerns over the treatment of minor parties.

McCarthy was the cousin of writer/theater critic Mary McCarthy (The Group, 1963) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy.

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