A Conservative Looks at Gene McCarthy

To most who read HUMAN EVENTS, the news is probably surprising that I met Eugene McCarthy several times and thoroughly enjoyed the former Democratic senator from Minnesota and 1968 “Peace Candidate” for President. But it’s true — and with his death at 89 this weekend, the political world lost another of that diminishing number of people who could laugh about political differences over a martini (McCarthy’s drink and mine).

Most who read the newspaper stories that lead with McCarthy’s stunning showing against President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary will find it hard to believe that the candidate who embodied the anti-Vietnam message among Democrats was very comfortable among conservative Republicans in later years. In ’03, for example, McCarthy could be seen hobnobbing comfortably at the Palm Restaurant in Washington, D.C., at a party honoring William Schulz — who began his career writing for conservative Mutual Network radio commentator Fulton Lewis, Jr., and ended it as editor of Reader’s Digest. Among those crowding around McCarthy and listening to his wry comments at the Schulz event were Ken Tomlinson (who recently retired as head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), former Reagan White House aide and Washington attorney Frank Donatelli, and longtime conservative activist and public relations man Craig Shirley. To say the least, this was not a crowd that would have been comfortable at the Wayfarer Inn in Manchester, N.H., on the evening of McCarthy’s historic primary showing (not defeating Johnson but drawing 42% of the vote to 48% for the President — who was not even on the Granite State ballot but had his name written in by supporters).

But they sure were comfortable with McCarthy in 2003. When I shared this story of the Schulz event with my friend, former Washington Post reporter Stuart Auerbach, he replied: “It doesn’t surprise me. Gene McCarthy’s treated with a lot more respect these days from the far right than his own constituency. He goes to a lot of functions for conservatives.”

How could that have happened to liberal Democrat McCarthy, who helped lead Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party to success after World War II, made a stirring nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic convention when it was clear John Kennedy would win the presidential nomination, and then earned a place in the history books with his showing in the presidential sweepstakes in 1968? The answer, as I see it, is that Eugene McCarthy was not the left-wing figure both followers and detractors made him out to be and, more significantly, his principles sometimes led him to rise above ideology.

For all the following he attracted as the voice of opposition to the Vietnam War, McCarthy was by no means a pacifist or anti-Pentagon candidate. As he liked to recall, he had strongly supported President Truman on the Korean War while a young House member. Ironically, his rendezvous with destiny in national politics 37 years ago probably finished him as a political force. Many regular Democrats never forgave him for embarrassing a sitting president in his own party, just as many regular Republicans never forgave Pat Buchanan for his strong New Hampshire primary challenge to the elder George Bush in 1992. Similarly, in defeating Robert Kennedy in the Oregon primary in 1968 — in part through votes from Teamsters who hated RFK for his pursuit of their President Jimmy Hoffa — he won the lasting enmity of the Kennedy family. This was the first time a member of the Democratic Party’s “First Family” had ever met defeat anywhere. His failure to endorse Democratic nominee and fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey until the eve of the ’68 election was often cited by Minnesota Democrats as a factor in Humphrey’s “squeaker” loss to Richard Nixon that year. McCarthy was so unpopular at home that he chose not to seek a third term, his open seat won by Humphrey.

In 1980, McCarthy stunned his fans by endorsing Ronald Reagan for President, saying anyone would be better than Jimmy Carter. Reagan thanked him and said his support from the leader of the ’68 “Children’s Crusade” was proof that “I don’t eat my young.” A devout Roman Catholic, McCarthy made no secret of his pro-life position at a time when the Democratic Party was evolving into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the pro-abortion movement. (With 65% of New Hampshire Democrats being Roman Catholics in 1968, McCarthy’s campaign workers would — without telling the candidate — tip off reporters as to where he was attending Mass and get photographers to record his leaving churches). Perhaps most outspoken was the former senator’s opposition to campaign finance regulations and limitations contained in the McCain-Feingold regulations. He was a supporter of the legal action that led to the Buckley v. Valeo decision of the Supreme Court in 1975 that permitted individuals and groups not connected to a candidate to spend unlimited amounts on that candidate’s behalf.

McCarthy knew from whence he came. As former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr recalled from his days as clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger during the Buckley case, “Gene McCarthy always said that a handful of people put up the money for his challenge to LBJ and that had there been limits on donations, he would never have run. He was like someone with a patent for a new invention and needed funds for testing and development.”

McCarthy’s wit and iconoclastic nature delighted those whose knew him and delighted in his company. He will be missed acrossed the political spectrum.