Former U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy is not as well-remembered today as his longtime Minnesota colleague and sometime rival, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
Both men were major players in the 1968 presidential race, a turbulent contest that has summoned comparisons with this year’s unpredictable national election. In that race 48 years ago, McCarthy took on his own Democratic Party establishment — including Humphrey — over the war in Vietnam, in a way that anticipated the anti-establishment energy that gathered this year around the campaigns of both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“Eugene McCarthy was a patriotic American who valued his faith and his country but was not afraid to speak out,” U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican, said last May in a speech on the floor of the House.
That day, the House passed an Emmer-sponsored bill to name a Minnesota post office in McCarthy’s honor on the St. John’s University campus in Collegeville, McCarthy’s alma mater. The Senate also passed the bill with backing from Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and President Obama signed it into law late in July.
McCarthy was born 100 years ago last March in Watkins, near St. Cloud. Educated entirely in Minnesota, he taught economics and sociology at St. John’s and later St. Thomas before he was elected in 1948 to represent the St. Paul area in the U.S. House. A decade later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, joining Humphrey.
Flash forward another decade: Humphrey is vice president, and President Lyndon Johnson is preparing to mount his re-election campaign even as the Vietnam War intensifies. A group of antiwar Democrats recruited McCarthy, who had worked as a code breaker for the U.S. Army during World War II, to challenge Johnson.
In March of 1968, McCarthy finished a surprisingly strong second to Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Then-U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy quickly entered the race, stealing some of McCarthy’s antiwar thunder, and by the end of the month Johnson dropped out. Kennedy was assassinated at a victory party in early June, on the day he won the California primary. McCarthy’s campaign struggled after that, and Humphrey clinched the party nomination.
“Although [Richard] Nixon won the election, McCarthy had done the groundwork to inject public opinion into the national election process,” Emmer said in his speech.
In 1970, McCarthy opted against seeking re-election to the Senate. He was unsuccessful at a political resurrection in 1982 and later worked in publishing, writing a newspaper column and numerous books of poetry. He died in 2005.
Matt Lindstrom, director of the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at St. John’s and the College of St. Benedict, said that McCarthy’s “courageous actions can inspire young people today to try to follow their beliefs regardless of big institutions of conventional wisdom.”