1967: Martin Luther King, Jr., was called a traitor for opposing the Vietnam War. Young men were burning their draft cards. Anti-war demonstrations, increasingly violent, swept the country. By the end of that year, the American death toll was nearly 300 soldiers per week by the end of the war more than 3.5 million Vietnamese and Americans would be killed. America was being torn apart. Then, a little-known senator from Minnesota stepped forward to challenge President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential primaries and change American foreign policy. He did so in opposition to the President's Democratic Party, the Minnesota DFL party, and his friend and colleague Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
In the fall of 1967, Senator McCarthy spoke at an anti-war rally at Coffman Union. He was smart, honest, funny, irreverent, and challenging--all characteristics that endeared him to the students there and compelled us to examine our own views and our values. In 1968, I left the University of Minnesota to join thousands of other young "Clean for Gene" volunteers to work in the primary and caucus states, starting out organizing my parents neighbors to attend the precinct caucuses, door knocking in Wisconsin, running a county campaign headquarters in central Indiana, and ending up in California helping to coordinate campaign events out of the Los Angeles headquarters.
In 2002 I finally met Senator McCarthy in person at a St. Paul reception. He had that same distinguished demeanor, hand resting on a cane, quietly holding forth on the issues of the day. I approached to introduce myself. That famous smile spread across his face as I told him about my involvement in his 1968 campaign, and, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘Well, if I decide to run again—and I might—I’ll know just who to call."
Senator McCarthy died in 2005. As the New York Times put it, "[Gene McCarthy] was the singular candidate for the Vietnam War protest who served up politics and poetry, theology, and baseball in a blend that beguiled the "Clean for Gene" legions who flocked to his insurgent's call." I am proud to have been one of them.
~John Ziegenhagen, Minneapolis, MN
Changed the direction of the country's role in Vietnam. Principal force in President Johnson's decision not to run again in 1968.
~Mark D. Olson, Barrington, IL
In 1968, thousands and thousands of us were given hope that an intransigent distant government could be reached by one courageous man standing up and galvanizing others to follow. Gene McCarthy's challenge of Lyndon Johnson's disastrous policy in Vietnam changed American history and showed a generation that individual courage is part of the heritage of America.
McCarthy's challenge was called unpatriotic by people who backed the war -- yet he, and those of us inspired by him, kept on advocating for what he thought was best for America and the world in the face of small-mindedness. The lesson remains vibrantly pertinent today, when another disastrous war has the country divided and small-minded people are again saying dissent is harmful to America.
In addition, McCarthy was a scholar and a poet with deep Minnesota roots, carrying on a tradition of thoughtful progressives in politics. We could use more of his kind today.
Neither Minnesota, the country, nor I, would be the same had Gene McCarthy not stood up for what he believed in.
~Bruce Benidt, Minneapolis, MN
Eugene McCarthy stood for peace. He was sincere, but the electorate was not ready for him. He became a renowned statesman that had respect from many people. He was a well-known poet. He dared to speak up, where many might hesitate to do so.
~Marlene Marquette, Kasson, MN
He got kids with long hair and no purpose or ideal to follow him and cut their hair and get political. They turned the tide on the Vietnam war by following Gene. I was proud to represent him at a Democratic Convention. He inspired me and made me and a generation of young people feel the power of the vote and how it can change things that need changing.
~Marge Raze, Oak Grove, MN
A quiet man rallies America's young voters
He was a reluctant politician, a thoughtful, sharp-witted man who once summed up his profession by saying that "being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important." He was elected to the U.S. Congress and to the Senate but made his most significant contribution to the national scene during a political race that ended in his defeat.
Eugene McCarthy was born in Watkins, Minnesota, near Collegeville, and grew up in the shadow of St. John's Abbey. He graduated from St. John's University in 1935 and considered becoming a Benedictine monk. Instead he became a teacher, first in high schools, then as a professor of economics, education, and sociology at St. John's, and later at what is now the University of St. Thomas. He published seventeen books, including political studies, memoirs, and poetry.
In 1949, McCarthy joined Minnesota's newly formed DFL Party and was elected to Congress, where he served until 1959. From 1959 to 1971, he served in the U.S. Senate, forging a reputation as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He ran for president in the 1968 election. In announcing his candidacy, he posited that "the issue of the war in Vietnam is not really a separate issue, but one which must be dealt with in the configuration of other problems to which it is related. And it is within this broader context that I intend to make the case to the people of the United States."
McCarthy was one of the first mainstream Democrats to break ranks with their party by protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Backed by thousands of young, vocal antiwar activists who cleaned up their acts and joined his "Clean for Gene" presidential campaign, he took 42 percent of the Democratic vote in the New Hampshire primary, precipitating incumbent Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek reelection. McCarthy's campaign came to a dramatic climax at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where protesters and the Chicago police force engaged in direct, violent confrontations. McCarthy lost the Democratic nomination to Hubert Humphrey, but he had succeeded in focusing the nation's attention on a nightmare that was still years from reaching its conclusion.
The maple tree that night
Without a wind or rain
Let go its leaves
Because its time had come.
Brown veined, spotted,
Like old hands, fluttering in blessing,
They fell upon my head
And shoulders, and then
Down to the quiet at my feet.
I stood, and stood
Until the tree was bare
And have told no one
But you that I was there.
From "The Maple Tree," by Eugene McCarthy
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