One of the most enigmatic and exasperating people in American presidential politics, the late Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota confounded and infuriated his anti-Vietnam War supporters when he refused to show passion as a presidential candidate in the 1968 Democratic Primary.
The erudite and eminently quotable McCarthy left behind a traveling encyclopedia of gems from 1960s politics. This, for example, was how he reacted to Bobby Kennedy’s entrance into the presidential race: “He plays touch football; I play football. He plays softball; I play baseball. He skates in Rockefeller Center; I play hockey… If these are the bases on which you are going to make a decision… it’ll become abrasive, I suppose.”
When Kennedy entered the race after McCarthy’s stunning moral victory in the New Hampshire Primary, the senator from New York and younger brother of the slain JFK insisted that his efforts would not be directed at McCarthy.
The senator from Minnesota responded with the following: “An Irishman who announces the day before St. Patrick’s Day that he’s going to run against another Irishman shouldn’t say it’s going to be a peaceful relationship.”
All of it remains very entertaining political invective – but it doesn’t answer the enduring question of why.
Why did McCarthy stand up to President Lyndon Johnson in the teeth of the conflict in Southeast Asia, the only man to oppose the president, only to run a shockingly moribund campaign that broke the hearts of impassioned young followers seemingly more committed to the cause than the candidate, and ended with McCarthy’s anti-climatic fumbling of the nomination to Johnson’s Vice President, Vietnam apologist Hubert Humphrey?
Two great books for politics junkies, Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and 1968 in America by Charles Kaiser, hint (in the case of Kaiser’s study) and outright state (according to Mailer) that McCarthy’s political objective in challenging Johnson might have included a desire to gain sufficient political leverage – not to become president – but to oust FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to win the job for himself.
Opposed to the war after initially supporting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution broadening the president’s war powers, McCarthy also detested Hoover and what he saw as his infringement on personal liberties and his “personalization of power” as the director of the FBI since 1924.
“Dad felt very strongly about the danger of having the head of the FBI so unaccountable, so permanent,” McCarthy’s daughter, Ellen McCarthy, told USA Today in 2007. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s, we had a wonderful family dog, Eric the Red. He who would go crazy at the mention of J. Edgar’s name — growling and carrying on. It was one of Eric’s tricks most appreciated by Dad.”
Although leaders of the anti-war movement tried to prevail on both men, neither Martin Luther King, Jr. nor Bobby Kennedy would run against the redoubtable Johnson in the lead-up to 1968. When McCarthy finally made his announcement, he did so in his own peculiar, dispassionate way, maddening those who wanted a real anti-war crusader. McCarthy refused to attack Johnson, refused to show emotion, and remained aloof heading into the snows of New Hampshire where his college-aged backers – up against the foreign policy challenge of their generation – saw an opportunity to make a statement against the Johnson Administration.
As Vietnam intensified with the Tet Offensive, the anti-Johnson movement became that much more urgent. When, days before the New Hampshire Primary, the New York Times first reported General William Westmoreland’s request for another 200,000-plus American troops in Vietnam, McCarthy’s forces had the momentum they needed and, despite their candidate’s persistent dispassion, vaulted their candidate to within 200 votes (when all votes were tallied) of icing Johnson in N.H.
The event prompted Kennedy – convinced that McCarthy was not a serious candidate – into the presidential race. And that decision forced Johnson – haunted by the specter of his predecessor – out.
While his supporters reacted like revolutionaries who had just toppled the dictator’s statue in the plaza, McCarthy – on learning the news of Johnson’s retreat from the Democratic Primary – said in his inimitable, detached way, “It’s a surprise to me. Things have gotten rather complicated.”
Of course it’s an unfortunate comparison for a variety of reasons, but imagine Chris Christie unhorsing, say, Jeb Bush from the presidential contest and suddenly announcing, “Things have gotten rather complicated.”
In their separate studies, Kaiser and Mailer both try to dissect McCarthy’s confounding reluctance to seize on an advantage.
They pinpoint a variety of reasons for the Minnesotan’s behavior: the candidate’s Benedictine mysticism and natural aversion to the City of Man; his preference of poetry to politics; his horror and final surrender to paranoia in the aftermath of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination; his intellectual hyperactivity; his innate laziness and years of mouldering in the U.S. Senate; his jealousy of the Kennedys; his essential conservatism as a stark – and finally irreconcilable – contrast to the radical pressures of the anti-war movement; his extraordinary originality and refusal to be an instrument for the masses.
Maybe it had had to do with the fact that the Hoover-led FBI kept a 500-page file on McCarthy, obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act.
All of these in some measure are plausible for why McCarthy made such an aloof and unsatisfying effort.
But as a specific political target to be obtained by running directly at Johnson, conceived “far from the madding crowd” in the halls of D.C. power, the FBI job makes some political sense.
Kaiser teases the reader on the subject while Mailer outright gets McCarthy to admit as much in an impromptu dinner interview following the Democrats’ selection of Humphrey as the party’s nominee for president.
From Kaiser’s book: “In 1968 McCarthy promised to fire Hoover if he became president. To many of his supporters, that pledge was more radical than anything he ever said about the war.”
In a debate with Humphrey and George McGovern (who entered the contest after the killing of Kennedy) at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, McCarthy reinforced the argument against Hoover. “They say I was impersonal, I want you to know I am the only candidate who said he would get rid of J. Edgar Hoover and that is a person,” the candidate cracked.
After Humphrey beats him with a combination of establishment muscle and McCarthy’s own somnolence,
Mailer, in his book, describes an incredible encounter with the once and future presidential candidate in a restaurant.
From Miami and the Siege of Chicago: “‘You see, sir,’ he said. ‘The tragedy of the whole business is that you never should have had to run for President,’” Mailer writes of his meeting with McCarthy. ‘You would have been perfect for the Cabinet.’ A keen look back from McCarthy’s eye gave the sanction to continue. ‘Yessir,’ said the reporter, ‘you’d have made a perfect chief for the FBI.’ And they looked at each other and McCarthy smiled and said, ‘Of course, you’re absolutely right.’”
Maybe McCarthy was simply humoring Mailer.
But when one examines his reaction to Johnson’s departure from the race in the Kaiser study – marked in its lack of celebration, and notable for the candidate’s expression of how things have become “complicated,” not simplified by the removal of an impediment of power, the quote strikes a profound political chord.
We don’t know the complete context of McCarthy’s quote – perhaps he was already suffering the entrance into the race of Kennedy and knew he could not beat the former attorney general with a surname straight out of Camelot.
But the combination of McCarthy’s resistance to attack Johnson, his willingness to go after Hoover, his expression of doubt at the retreat of Johnson and the enticing quote he gave to Mailer, suggest – at the very least – that for all the historic public agony of the War in Vietnam – McCarthy would have been happy to personally displace Hoover.
In a 1986 interview, McCarthy said of his candidacy, “I felt – it looked to me that just the fact that there could be a significant percentage of Democrats who’d say, ‘We don’t want this war,’ could affect the policy of Johnson – moderate it – and that he could be re-nominated. I thought he could be re-nominated, but on a different platform, a modification of his war position.”
And with a new FBI director?
But that political option weakened when, post New Hampshire Primary, Johnson uttered the following words on March 31, 1968: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” words which, if one accepts the Hoover motive as an overriding factor in McCarthy’s presidential bid, might have come as a crushing political blow to the senator from Minnesota – as crushing a blow as those words represented a resounding people’s victory for the followers of Eugene McCarthy.
In any event, even if one reaches a different conclusion, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and 1968 in America are two indispensable works on American politics, all the more interesting because they examine one of our most inscrutable political characters.