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