When the Whole World Was Watching
Forty years ago, during one of the most dramatic campaign seasons in U.S. history, two Minnesotans stood at the center of the storm
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On the last day of November 1967, Eugene McCarthy, the sharp-witted, tart-tongued senior senator from Minnesota, stepped behind a bank of microphones in a marble-walled caucus room in the Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., to announce the most audacious move of his career: He had decided to run for president—against an incumbent from his own party, Lyndon B. Johnson.
“My decision to challenge the president’s position has been strengthened by recent announcements from the administration of plans for continued escalation of the war in Vietnam,” McCarthy said in a low-key voice. Already, he said, the cost of waging the war, in dollars and lives, had been too high. More than 15,000 U.S. soldiers had been killed, another 95,000 Americans wounded. Civilian casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Beyond that, said McCarthy, “There is growing evidence of a deepening moral crisis in America.” He hoped his challenge would “alleviate the sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government.”
A reporter asked McCarthy an obvious question: What did his old colleague from Minnesota, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, say when he told him the news? Both men were part of a remarkable generation of Minnesota Democrats—a group that included Orville Freeman, Eugenie Anderson, and Walter Mondale—who had created the DFL before going on to become players on the national stage.
But McCarthy’s decision would put the two on a collision course. Since becoming vice president, after all, Humphrey had become Johnson’s most loyal soldier, a prominent spokesman for a policy McCarthy had come to despise. With characteristic understatement, McCarthy said that Humphrey hadn’t tried to dissuade him from running, but that “he raised a few questions to be considered.”
Of course, what neither man had ever imagined is that, over the next year, they would find themselves considering more than just a few questions; that they would be enveloped in a contest marked by unforeseeable twists and unimaginable tragedy; that two men who had both started their political careers in the small world of Minnesota politics would find themselves on opposite sides of a campaign, and a cultural divide, that would tear apart the country—and define its politics for decades to come.
That someone might challenge the sitting president in the 1968 primaries was not in and of itself a surprise. For months, the burgeoning antiwar movement had been seeking a Democrat who would make Vietnam a centerpiece of the campaign. McCarthy, however, was not the movement’s preferred candidate. Throughout the summer of 1967, party dissidents had pined in particular over the prospect of Senator Robert Kennedy of New York taking on his brother’s former running mate. But Kennedy refused. At the time, he believed that any attempt to unseat Johnson was a fool’s errand. The president was simply too powerful to defeat.
Though McCarthy had long been opposed to the war, there was good reason he hadn’t been the first choice to take on the president. A member of Congress since 1948, he was best known for his razor-sharp wit (when, during his announcement, a reporter asked McCarthy if he thought he was committing political suicide by challenging the president, he said it would be more like an execution) and a less-than-diligent work ethic. More aloof scholar than a back-slapping pol, he was an enigmatic figure to many in the capital. “He reads poetry instead of polls,” Washington Star columnist Mary McGrory once wrote of McCarthy. “He refuses the telephone calls [of party politicians] when he is tired. His preferred traveling companion…is the poet, Robert Lowell, not the local [party] chairmen. He is tart with the press.”
As a candidate, he was less interested in asserting his own qualities than in puting forward the ideas that he represented. Indeed, at the press conference announcing his candidacy, he talked again and again about the circumstances that were driving him to enter the race, but never once said that he actually wanted to be president—or even that he was running for the office.
McCarthy was anything but a lightweight, though. At the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, he had delivered an impassioned nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson. Four years later, he was on the short list to become Johnson’s running mate, a job than ended up going to Minnesota’s other senator, Humphrey. Moreover, for all his liabilities as a national candidate, there was also something innately appealing about McCarthy. His mix of self-deprecating humor and unwavering conviction resonated with voters, especially students, opposed to Johnson’s conduct of the war. Though campus protests were nothing new in 1967, they had been marked by a sense of futility; McCarthy’s campaign presented young people with an avenue for electoral empowerment. Almost instantly, “McCarthy for President” buttons began to appear on the ponchos and surplus army jackets of students from Berkeley to Harvard Square. “He was about to catch lightning in a bottle,” says Albert Eisele, a former Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press.
IT didn’t take long for it to become clear that something strange was happening in the campaign. In the weeks and months after McCarthy’s announcement, hordes of young people began to descend upon New Hampshire, site of the nation’s first primary. To present a more palatable image to the electorate, many began to get “Clean for Gene.” The image of would-be volunteers sitting in barber chairs, getting their hair and beards trimmed to knock on doors in New Hampshire became part of campaign folklore. By mid-winter, the sheer volume of “Clean for Gene” students ringing doorbells in New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—where the second primary was to be held—suggested that the sentiment to dump Lyndon Johnson was wider than had been previously thought.
Events taking place halfway around the world would also play a part in the contest.
At the end of January, Vietcong forces marked the beginning of the Vietnamese New Year, Tet, with a massive and highly coordinated attack. Even the staunchest defenders of the Johnson administration’s policy in Vietnam were unnerved by the brazenness of the offensive, for it belied the notion that our involvement would come to an end any time soon. The sense that the war, in fact, might be unwinnable reverberated across the political spectrum.
On March 5, 1968, a week before the New Hampshire primary, Minnesota held its DFL caucuses, a gathering that would offer a sign of things to come. In Minnesota, as they would be everywhere, McCarthy’s supporters were intensely passionate, new to electoral politics, and only intermittently respectful of party regulars, recalls Minneapolis author and attorney David Lebedoff, whose 1972 book, Ward Number Six, details the ’68 campaign by focusing on a single
Minneapolis ward. That night, McCarthy won three of Minnesota’s five Congressional districts, but dominated voting in the Twin Cities metro area. It was an impressive showing, one that Johnson supporters should have noticed.
They didn’t, and a week later McCarthy shocked the country, and the Johnson campaign, by winning 42 percent of the vote, finishing behind the president by just 7 points—a stunning rebuke of Johnson and his administration. When McCarthy woke up on the morning after his near-upset in New Hampshire, it seemed entirely possible that his quixotic campaign actually had a chance to unseat the president of the United States.
One thing people should know about Washington is that there are a lot of political leaders in the city who drive by the White House and think ‘I could live there,’ ” says Eisele, who has lived and worked in the capital for 40 years.
In early 1968, the thought must have crossed the mind of Bobby Kennedy, especially after McCarthy exposed the deep divisions within the Democratic Party. Just four days after the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy stepped behind a wall of microphones—in the same room of the same Senate Office Building where McCarthy had announced his presidential candidacy four months earlier—and declared that he, too, was tossing his hat in the ring. Saying that he had “reassessed” the situation, Kennedy noted that he hoped his campaign would be viewed not “in opposition” to McCarthy’s, “but in harmony,” to bring a close to the Vietnam War.
McCarthy had liked and respected John F. Kennedy. He had never felt the same about his younger brother, however, and RFK’s entry into the race only stoked his bitterness. McCarthy had begun his campaign as a representative of the movement to end the war. Now Kennedy, who had numerous chances to challenge the president on the issue, was riding the Minnesota senator’s coattails into the campaign. McCarthy, a man who had difficulty stating directly that he wanted to be president when he first started his campaign, would now have to win the anti-war vote over the heir-apparent to Camelot.
For many of his volunteers, there was a sense of resentment as well. Carol Connolly, along with her then-husband, John, had been among the earliest McCarthy supporters in Minnesota. “McCarthy’s supporters had been living off the land in this campaign,” says Connolly, now a poet and a columnist for Minnesota Law and Politics. “Everyone was a volunteer. Everyone fended for themselves. Suddenly, Bobby Kennedy brings all these paid workers into the race and our kids were out there wondering where they were going to be sleeping that night. Of course there were hard feelings.”
RFK’s entrance into the last race wouldn’t be the final surprise of the campaign. On March 31, just two weeks after his announcement, LBJ stunned the nation when he went on television to announce that he would not be running for reelection: “I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president,” Johnson told the nation.
Four days later, the nation experienced another seismic shock: In Memphis, James Earl Ray shot and killed Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
The president’s decision not to seek reelection upended the race, but it also created an opening for a man who had long harbored his own dreams of inhabiting the White House: McCarthy’s fellow Minnesotan and former colleague in the Senate, Hubert Humphrey.
For the World War II–generation of Minnesota politicians, Humphrey had always been the first among equals. A former professor and beloved mayor of Minneapolis, he debuted on the national stage at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, where his speech in support of civil rights galvanized liberals throughout the country, drew black voters into the party, and directly contributed to President Truman’s victory that fall. At home, his bold stand helped elect him to the U.S. Senate, where he continued to be a leading voice for progressive causes in Washington. “Before he arrived on the national scene, the party had been this odd combination of Southern racists and Northern liberals,” says Wy Spano, a longtime political commentator who teaches at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. “When he gave his speech [at the Democratic Convention in 1948], that really began the process that would ultimately lead to the modern Democratic Party.” If any single political figure defined liberalism throughout the 1950s and ’60s, it was Humphrey.
In the Senate during the 1950s, Humphrey became a close ally of the majority leader, Lyndon Johnson, and an important liaison to other congressional liberals. He was a man who was willing to compromise if he believed he could nudge policy, including civil rights, in the direction he desired. Yet Humphrey’s ambition, and his ties to LBJ, carried a steep price. When he became vice president, Humphrey pledged his loyalty to Johnson and he remained true to his word, even on the issue of the war. To liberals, that loyalty looked like a betrayal of principal, and against Kennedy and McCarthy, Humphrey was cast as the president’s apologist, a yes man for an administration whose policies were being discredited—and nothing he did in the next few months allowed him to escape that role. Even his famously ebullient personality took on a dark tinge, seen by the anti-war crowd as a manifestation of cynicism and insensitivity, his sincerity scoffed at.
When Humphrey finally announced his candidacy at the end of April, his speech was vintage Hubert. He stressed a number of times that he would be a unifying figure in the race, and that he and his supporters represented “the way politics ought to be in America, the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, and the politics of joy.” But the phrases sounded grating and empty to those who opposed the country’s involvement in Vietnam. Not once did Humphrey hint of any change in his position on the conduct of the war. In fact, Humphrey knew that any support from the president and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party was predicated on continuing to espouse administration policies. Says Eisele: “Johnson was his albatross.”