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Eugene McCarthy (1916–2005): The Legacy of the Former Senator and Anti-War Presidential Candidate

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We look at the life of former anti-war presidential candidate, Eugene McCarthy. Hundreds gathered for his memorial service this weekend. We speak with a reporter who covered him for decades and SDS founder Tom Hayden. [includes rush transcript]

We look at the lives of two individuals whose actions in the late 1960s shaped how this country viewed the Vietnam War.

One was named Hugh Thompson. He was an Army helicopter pilot who helped stop the My Lai Massacre when U.S. troops slaughtered hundreds of innocent Vietnamese villagers. He died earlier this month at the age of 62. Later in the show we will speak with former Army Specialist Lawrence Colburn who helped Thompson end the massacre.

But first we are going to look at the life of Eugene McCarthy, the former Minnesota Senator and presidential candidate. He died in December at the age of 89. On Saturday some 800 people filled the National Cathedral in Washington for a memorial service.

McCarthy and the Vietnam War will be forever linked.

It was in 1968 when the Democratic Senator from Minnesota broke party ranks and decided to challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the party’s presidential nomination.

McCarthy ran on a platform opposing the Vietnam War. By 1968 the war had already taken thousands of American lives as U.S. involvement escalated under Johnson.

In March 1968, voters in New Hampshire responded to McCarthy’s anti- war sentiments. He shocked the nation by receiving 42 percent of the primary vote. Johnson — the sitting president–ended up wining the New Hampshire primary but his political future changed overnight.

Within days, Senator Robert Kennedy jumped into the race. And then to the amazement of the country, Johnson announced within weeks that he was dropping out and not seeking re-election.

1968 would prove to be a painful year in many ways.

On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee. Then on June 6, Robert Kennedy was shot dead shortly after delivering a victory speech in Los Angeles after winning the California primary.

For many Eugene McCarthy’s run for president marked a bright spot in a tragic year.

But McCarthy’s run for the presidency stopped in Chicago during the infamous 1968 Democratic convention when the delegates nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey who would then go on to lose to Richard Nixon in November.

But the effects of McCarthy’s run for office were felt for years.

On Saturday, at McCarthy’s memorial service President Clinton gave the eulogy for the late Senator and said McCarthy was instrumental in building opposition to the Vietnam War.

Clinton said, “It all began with Gene McCarthy’s willingness to stand alone and turn the tide of history.”

We go now back to 1968 to listen to an anti-Vietnam War campaign radio spot that McCarthy ran ahead of the New Hampshire primary.

We speak with are joined by two guests:

  • Albert Eisele, co-founder and editor at large of the Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C. He is the author of a dual biography of Hubert Humphrey and former Sen. Eugene McCarthy called “Almost to the Presidency” written in 1979. He was a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press and Knight-Ridder before becoming press secretary to Vice President Walter Mondale.
  • Tom Hayden, former California State Senator. He lead the demonstrations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Hayden and others were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot in the famous trial known as the trial of the “Chicago Seven.”

And we play excerpts of Eugene McCarthy in his own words:

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go back now to 1968 to listen to an anti-Vietnam War campaign radio spot that McCarthy ran ahead of the New Hampshire primary.

RADIO SPOT: Four years ago America had 3,000 men in Vietnam, and we were told we were winning the war. Three years ago we had 16,000 men in Vietnam, and we were told we were winning the war. Two years ago we had 100,000 men in Vietnam, and we were told we were winning the war. A year ago, we had 250,000 men in Vietnam, and we were told we were winning the war. Today, we have 550,000 men in Vietnam with over 100,000 boys killed and wounded, and we’re told we’re winning the war. There’s got to be a better way than death, double talk and taxes. On March 12, stand up with McCarthy and say so.

AMY GOODMAN: A campaign radio spot that Eugene McCarthy ran ahead of the New Hampshire primary in 1968. This is an excerpt of a campaign speech by McCarthy.

EUGENE McCARTHY: And it fits into our whole campaign thrust, namely of protecting people’s rights and beyond that of setting them free. We’ll go on in great things and also in small things to demonstrate our continued belief that there is a certain power in human reason, which is really the only instrument we have with which we can give some direction to life and history.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eugene McCarthy, as we turn now to our guests. On the phone with us from California is Tom Hayden, former California state senator, led the demonstrations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Hayden and others were charged with conspiracy, inciting to riot in the famous trial known as “Chicago Seven.” And in our studio in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Albert Eisele, he is co-founder and editor-at-large of the Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C. He’s the author of a dual biography of Hubert Humphrey and former senator Eugene McCarthy called Almost to the Presidency, written in 1979. He was Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press and Knight-Ridder before becoming Press Secretary to Vice President Walter Mondale. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Albert Eisele, can you talk about when you first met Eugene McCarthy?

ALBERT EISELE: Yes, I can. I came to Washington in 1965 as a reporter for newspapers in Duluth and St. Paul, and obviously he was in the Senate. And I covered him and other members of the Minnesota delegation. I had known him somewhat, because I happened to have graduated from the same university in Minnesota that he did, St. John’s University, so he was obviously well known there, but I really got to know him in the period from 1965 on, when I covered him as a senator.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you start to talk to him about his desire to run for president against the sitting Democratic president?

ALBERT EISELE: Well, it was becoming evident in 1967 that he was seriously considering it. As you recall, there were a number of other senators who were critical of the war and who had been asked by anti-war activists to run, and none of them wanted to. I believe I wrote the first story that he was actually seriously considering challenging Lyndon Johnson. This was in late 1967. And in November or maybe December 1, first part of December of 1967, he gave a speech in Chicago, in which he basically said that he was challenging Johnson. Of course, he announced his candidacy later. It was — when you look back on it, it’s hard to understand just how courageous, if you will, and maybe foolhardy it was for a senator of the Democratic Party to challenge a Democratic president, one of the most powerful presidents ever. It was akin to political suicide. But as it turned out, it certainly wasn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Hayden, when Eugene McCarthy announced he would run for president, where were you, if you can remember?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, that would have been towards the end of 1967. I would have been on the East Coast in Newark, New Jersey. The country was coming apart in the town where I was working, Newark. There had been several days of rioting and people killed. The same in Detroit. The Tet Offensive had not occurred yet in Vietnam. But it was clear that the war was being lost or had become a quagmire. And there was a huge movement, I mean, a really huge movement, and an element of it wanted to find a candidate to challenge President Johnson. Wonder about the parallels with today.

And McCarthy came forward after a lot of thought. I remember seeing him in the scruffy headquarters of the national mobilization committee, coming by to say hello to people. And I was very young. And he was very elegant. He had on a black coat, suit and tie. And a lot of people rallied to him. I was not one of them. I was involved with the anti-war movement. And come what may, we wanted to have demonstrations in the streets. But there probably was an electoral strategy, I thought.

And looking back, you know, I have to say that he was the man. He really did — President Clinton is right. He did take it on all alone at a time when a lot of the counsel was that it was suicidal. And he generated a movement that toppled a president and brought into politics the whole generation of activists that included people like the young Bill Clinton, who I think was his campaign manager in Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why, Albert Eisele, Robert Kennedy entered the race and what this meant for Eugene McCarthy, the man you were covering?

ALBERT EISELE: Well, it certainly caused a huge upheaval in the Democratic Party. You recall that Robert Kennedy had been implored by others to run and refused to do it before New Hampshire and before Johnson announced that he was dropping out. And immediately afterwards, Robert Kennedy announced that he was getting in, which alienated many of his supporters and certainly McCarthy’s supporters, as well. And then, of course, that led to the series of tragic events, which you referred to earlier, his assassination in California, when he won the primary. But he didn’t win it by that much. Just the week before that, McCarthy had won the Oregon primary, so it was a real race going into California.

And then that touched off a whole series of catalytic events, culminating with the violent Chicago convention and then Hubert Humphrey’s defeat by Richard Nixon. Many of McCarthy’s critics blame him for Humphrey’s defeat. But I don’t think that’s right. I think the biggest reason that Humphrey lost that election was that he could not get the albatross of Vietnam off of his back. And I think that he — McCarthy reached out to him at various times and asked him to make some concessions, which he wouldn’t. And for that reason I think that he lost the election, by a very slim margin, obviously.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Albert Eisele and to Tom Hayden about Eugene McCarthy, a memorial service held for him this week in Washington. Over 800 people attended.


AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Albert Eisele, who is the founder of the Hill newspaper, also covered Eugene McCarthy for decades. And we’re joined on the phone by Tom Hayden, well known 1960s activist, also became a California state senator, has written a number of books. We’re going to turn now to an interview that Eugene McCarthy did with Minnesota Public Radio on March 25, 2003, just after the U.S. invaded Iraq.

EUGENE McCARTHY: The Bush administration is sort of like an intruder. He doesn’t care whether what he does is legal or traditional or not. He just goes ahead and does it. And there’s nothing you can do about it unless you call out the Air Force or the Army, and they’re busy. And I don’t know, half a dozen of our institutions have been not destroyed, but undercut. The Supreme Court has been corrupted. The Army has been corrupted. The Vice Presidential office has been corrupted. And Bush almost said, 'Well, what are you going to do about it? You know, what are you going to do to me? Put me in jail?'

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene McCarthy, speaking just after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Albert Eisele, you followed Eugene McCarthy. You wrote a book about Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey. What happened to him after 1968, after his run for the presidency? What about his career?

ALBERT EISELE: That’s a good question. He spent almost 35 years as a very public private citizen after he left office in 1970, after he left the Senate. He remained very much a public figure. He ran for president three or four more times, including twice as an independent. But I think, as his comments in the Minnesota Public Radio interview indicated, it was consistent with his feeling that Congress needed to put limits on presidential power. He opposed the personalization of the office of the presidency. He felt that there should be more congressional oversight in the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., and so forth. And he spoke out, and he wrote almost 20 books. He spoke out on those issues and others throughout the rest of his career.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go now to another clip of Eugene McCarthy, talking about the corporate media.

EUGENE McCARTHY: And I think after 1992, when the control over what was really communicated was left in the hands of corporately controlled television —

INTERVIEWER: Are you saying that Saddam Hussein —

EUGENE McCARTHY: And the projection then becomes one of the corporate morality and corporate mentality. So you’re backed up to where the kind of ultimate controlling at the beginning is whatever is in the corporate mind, and it feeds out through the whole society until we’re sort of all coopted. And I don’t know how you fight your way out of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene McCarthy in the documentary made about him called I’m Sorry I Was Right. Tom Hayden, your response?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, I think it’s well worth remembering that he was a forerunner on what became the issue of campaign reform, political reform. He represented a kind of an independent third force in politics that now and then surfaces in the Democratic Party in presidential primaries and third party candidates.

But his — I think his chief contribution was this poetic notion — he prided himself on being more interested in poetry than politics — this poetic notion that the young people of this country, being drafted, resisting the draft, being dragged off to Vietnam, needed a voice, a voice in the wilderness. And one wonders what it takes to have that kind of character, that kind of whimsical approach to politics, in a sense. He made space for a whole movement that upset a presidency and was ultimately successful in challenging a war, and nobody can take that from him.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, Eugene McCarthy.

EUGENE McCARTHY: Eisenhower’s final warning was about the military-industrial complex. And what he didn’t say, you know, is that it developed while he was president.

The first sign that something was happening was about 1947. It was after the war. It was before I went to Congress. But it was an appropriation bill with a new name. They didn’t — they called it the Department of Defense. The war had been fought under the direction of the War Department. But somewhere after the war, somebody — and I tried find out from the Pentagon, I said, “Where did that — how did that word change come in?” They just said, 'Oh, it just came up in that appropriation.' I said, “Well, things don’t happen that way. I’ve been on committees, and somebody had to say, ’Let’s change the name.’” And they would never admit who had done it and how it had happened.

So, since that time, we never conduct wars now. It’s just national defense. And if you have a War Department , some person might say, 'Where is the war?' And they say, 'Well, we don't have one.’ 'Well, are you planning one?' 'No, we're not planning one.’ But if you have a defense department, you say, 'Defense? There's a threat. Or if it isn’t real now, it will be.’ So it’s a covering title for unlimited defense. There is no limit to — it’s kind of Kafka, like you can always here a scratching sound. And when they finally got us so defended on earth, in the Reagan administration they said, ’It’s out there.’ Space defense. So it goes to infinity. You can never have enough defense. You can always hear a scratching sound. It’s internal, external, inner space, outer space, on earth, wherever it comes from.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene McCarthy. I want to thank our guests Albert Eisele, who covered Eugene McCarthy for decades. You’re going out to Minnesota to deliver a eulogy?

ALBERT EISELE: I am, at Senator McCarthy’s alma mater, St. John’s University. And there will be another one the next day at St. Thomas College in St. Paul, where he taught.

AMY GOODMAN: And Tom Hayden, I want to thank you, as well, former California state senator at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention on the outside. And today, we’ll end the segment on Eugene McCarthy with Eugene McCarthy’s own words.

EUGENE McCARTHY: I wrote a book, a poem on “Courage After Sixty.” And I keep, you know, it carries on. It gets — you get more courage after 70, and so on.

And it says:
Now it’s certain.
There is no magic stone to be found.
No secrets.
One must go
With the mind’s winnowed learning.
No more than a child’s handhold
On a willow bending over the lake,
Or a sumac root at the edge of the cliff.
All ignorance is checked,
All betrayals scratched.
The coat has been hung on the peg,
The cigar laid on the beveled table’s edge,
The cue chosen and chalked,
The balls racked for the final break.
All cards have been drawn,
All bets called.
The dice, warm as blood in the hand,
Shaken for the final cast.
The glove has been thrown on the ground,
The last choice of weapons made.

A book for one poem.
A poem for one line.
A line for one word.
“Broken things are powerful.”
But things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is the truest.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene McCarthy, from the film I’m Sorry I Was Right.

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