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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 693

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This is the grave of Eugene McCarthy.

Born in 1916 in Watkins, Minnesota, McCarthy grew up a hard-core Irish-German Catholic. He went to Catholic school and then Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota for his undergraduate degree, graduating in 1935. He was a public school teacher in Minnesota and North Dakota from 1935-40 before taking a job as a professor back at Saint John’s teaching economics and education. He also coached the college hockey team for one year. McCarthy left Saint John’s in 1943 to consider joining the priesthood. But after a year as a novice, he decided against it. He then joined the military, where he was a code breaker working out of Washington. He went back to Minnesota after the war, taking another professor job at Saint Thomas, where he taught from 1946-49.

But McCarthy decided on a different path than academia: politics. He was elected to Congress in 1948 with backing from organized labor and of course Catholics, which in Minnesota was largely the same people. He became a leading young liberal in a period where conservatives were starting to peel back the New Deal domination of liberals. He was pretty brave too, taking on Joseph McCarthy in a 1952 debate over communism in the military. Given that this was when the evil McCarthy was at his height, the good McCarthy put himself on the line taking him on.

In 1958, McCarthy ran for Senate and won. By this time, he had a pretty prominent position in the Democratic Party and was considered as Lyndon Johnson’s VP candidate in 1964, though of course Minnesota’s other senator was chosen. He played a big role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Initially, he was a huge supporter of nominating Adlai Stevenson for the third straight time in 1960 (I have never really understood the love of mid-century Democrats for Stevenson), but certainly supported Kennedy. He was a sponsor of the Immigration Act of 1965, which finally ended the racist anti-immigration regime that had dominated the nation since 1924. He even met with Che Guevara in 1964 to discuss improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which of course went nowhere and was increasingly concerned by CIA involvement around the globe. He was also close to Lyndon Johnson at this time, in part because he conveniently missed a vote to repeal a tax break for the oil industry after saying he was for it. Johnson of course supported the oil industry and rewarded McCarthy for his absence with a spot on the Budget Committee. However, Johnson probably used him as a pawn in the VP choice and then humiliated him by forcing him to place Humphrey’s name into nomination at the convention.

McCarthy is obviously known today for one thing and that’s challenging Johnson in 1968 over the Vietnam War. When he almost defeated LBJ in New Hampshire, it finally forced the president to reckon with the disaster that Vietnam had caused the nation and his own political career, leading to him dropping out of the race unexpectedly. McCarthy wasn’t initially anti-war. It was Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening who had voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, not McCarthy. But he changed his mind pretty quickly and when Bobby Kennedy refused to initially run as the anti-war candidate, he jumped in at the urging of Allard Loewenstein, who had been working to find someone to take on Johnson.

Of course, once McCarthy pushed out Johnson, Kennedy came in and took most of his voters while Hubert Humphrey rallied the party establishment. The sad thing about all of this is that Humphrey was probably the farthest left of any of these candidates when it came to domestic policy. But that was not the issue in 1968 and even though Humphrey won, he was heavily damaged. McCarthy didn’t immediately collapse though. He won the Wisconsin and Oregon primaries. But he was also kind of a jerk and had the tendency to call his political opponents stupid in public, literally saying that Kennedy’s supporters were “less intelligent” than his supporters. He also was terrible at being a candidate, refusing to do the basic politics one needs to win a primary like meet with people and show up at his own campaign events. Even after Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles, McCarthy was unable to pick up his supporters and instead threw his hat to George McGovern, who had entered late.

But in his later life, McCarthy went off the rails. For one, he became a nativist, regretting his earlier support for immigration. He stated, “unrecognized by virtually all of the bill’s supporters were provisions which would eventually lead to unprecedented growth in numbers and the transfer of policy control from the elected representatives of the American people to individuals wishing to bring relatives to this country.” Yuck. That’s pretty bad. He also came into the orbit of the Unification Church and borrowed money from Sun-Myung Moon, which is pretty gross.

He also became the beta version of Ralph Nader. Having decided not to run for another term in the Senate in 1970, he ran a disastrous presidential campaign in 1972 that was mostly dedicated to trying to undermine his former ally Ed Muskie, then considered the frontrunner for the nomination. Then he left the Democrats entirely and ran for president as an Independent in 1976. He openly wanted to undercut Jimmy Carter. His positions were basically fine–full employment, nuclear disarmament, and disbanding the IRS, though I’m not so sure about that one. Anyway, he only won 1% of the vote, topping out at about 3% in Oregon. And then in 1980, McCarthy endorsed Ronald Reagan, after moving toward a right-libertarianism that made him outraged by the existence of campaign finance law. Some have speculated that it was his debt to Moon that led him to this endorsement; it came out in 1987 that both he and Ralph Abernathy, who shocked the civil rights establishment by also endorsing Reagan, were both in Moon’s debt.

McCarthy decided to rejoin the Democratic Party to try and get back in the Senate but Mark Dayton crushed him in the 1982 primary. He ran another idiotic independent campaign for president in 1988, supporting Reagan’s Star Wars program and wanting to end the two-party system. Now a parody of himself, he again joined the Democrats to run for president in 1992, but was excluded from the debates entirely. He finally disappeared after this.

McCarthy died in 2005 of Parkinson’s disease. He was 89 years old. Bill Clinton, who had an anti-war background at the beginning of his career, gave the eulogy at his funeral.

Eugene McCarthy is buried in Saint Paul’s Episcopal Churchyard, Woodville, Virginia.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks as always! If you would like this series to visit some of the other people mentioned in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Allard Lowenstein is in Arlington and Wayne Morse is supposedly in Eugene, Oregon but I’ve spent far too much time walking up and down the rows of the cemetery where he is buried and I have not found him so am skeptical. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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