The gentleman scholar of American politics Eugene McCarthy was born March 29, 1916 in Watkins, Minnesota. His father was an Irish cattle buyer and local Postmaster—a political appointment—known for his humor and storytelling. His mother was from German stock and intensely religious. He was raised in a devoutly Catholic home and educated in the local parochial school before going to St. John’s College Prep in Collegeville, Minnesota.
The school was operated by the Benedictine Monks of St. Johns Abby, who deeply influenced the young man. They encouraged his natural scholarly bent. He entered the Abby as a novice following graduation in 1931. After nine months he reluctantly concluded that he did not have the vocation and left. But he so impressed his fellow novices that one observed sadly that his departure was “like losing a twenty game winner.”
McCarthy didn’t go far. He enrolled in St. John’s University in Collegeville under the same leadership.
After graduating with distinction in 1935, he became a public school teacher serving rural schools in South Dakota and Minnesota. He also pursued advanced education at the University of Minnesota where he earned a master’s degree in 1939. He took his new degree back to his beloved St. John’s where he was professor of economics and education from 1940 to ’43.
McCarthy left academia to participate in the war effort as a civilian technical assistant in the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department.
In June 1945 he married Abigail Quigley, another academic. Together they briefly returned to Watkins were they lived on a farming commune for Catholic couples before each resumed their careers. Together they would have four children.
McCarthy resumed teaching as a professor of sociology at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He also became active in the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. In 1948 the Party tapped him for its nomination to Congress from the 4th District. That was the same year fellow Minnesotan Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey rose to national prominence with a speech at the Democratic National Convention demanding a Platform Plank condemning segregation—the speech which caused the Dixiecrat Party split that year. The two leading liberal’s careers would be intertwined ever after.
He entered the House of Representatives in 1949 just in time to see another McCarthy, Wisconsin Senator “Tail Gunner Joe” to rise to national prominence and launch the McCarthy Era hysterics.
He was a hard working and respected Congressman noted for his liberalism, his professorial demeanor, and his interest in foreign policy. Popular at home, he easily won re-election five times but was little known outside of his home state.
In 1958 he moved up to the Senate where he earned a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. McCarthy attracted national attention at the Democratic National Convention of 1960 when at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt he gave an impassioned speech in defense of Adlai Stevenson and rallied liberals to his standard. Both he and Mrs. Roosevelt fully understood the powerful symbolism of a leading Catholic politician standing against the nomination of John F. Kennedy. It was the beginning of a long and contentious relationship with the Kennedy family and their supporters.
By 1960 McCarthy began to be noticed for a series of serious political and policy books including Frontiers in American Democracy, Dictionary of American Politics, and A Liberal Answer to the Conservative Challenge. He became an acknowledged egg head liberal leader of the Democratic Party.
In 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson, in need of a northern liberal running mate not tied to the Kennedys considered him for the nod, but opted for his fellow Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey whose ebullient personality was considered better for the campaign than the sometimes dry McCarthy.
It was probably just as well for Johnson, because McCarthy was becoming increasingly disenchanted not only with the escalating War in Vietnam, but with the foreign policy assumptions that made such military interventions possible. He laid those objections out in speeches on the Senate floor, in appearances on the Sunday morning news panel shows, and in a widely read book published in 1967 The Limits of Power: America's Role in the World. Suddenly McCarthy was the leading and most coherent anti-war voice in Congress.
He was recruited by supporters of Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, one of only two Senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, to enter the 1968 Presidential Primaries against Johnson. McCarthy somewhat reluctantly agreed expecting only to be able to bring the issue of the war to the fore and perhaps influence Johnson to change course.
McCarthy was as surprised as anyone when an army of college students and young people descended on the first primary state, New Hampshire to canvas the state door to door on his behalf. Many came Clean for Gene, cutting long hair, shaving beards and adopting sport coats and ties and prim dresses. McCarthy shocked the nation—and the White House—by placing second in the contest with 42% of the vote against Johnson 49%. Perhaps more importantly, because the President had not bothered to slate delegates to the state convention which would in turn select delegates to the Democratic National Convention, McCarthy supporters won 20 of 24 spots and thus controlled the delegation.
The win spurred other actors to action. Four days after the primary Senator Robert Kennedy, who despite despising Johnson had not believed he was vulnerable, announced his entry into the race, perhaps hoping that McCarthy would drop out in his favor. On March 31 Johnson announced that he “would not seek and will not serve” a second term.
In the following primaries some of McCarthy’s early supporter did jump ship to Kennedy, who quickly put together a well oiled campaign. But McCarthy and many of his loyal, idealistic followers steadfastly remained in the race.
Vice President Humphrey, with impeccable liberal credentials but tied to Johnson’s war policy, entered the race too late to get in the primaries but with the support of almost the entire party establishment. He began reaping delegates in the many states which still relied exclusively on state conventions and on elected officials at all levels who were automatic delegates.
Kennedy and McCarthy slugged it out an increasingly bitter race. Kennedy won the crucial, delegate rich California primary but was assassinated following his acceptance speech. Most of Kennedy’s supporters, instead of throwing their grieving support to McCarthy, backed South Dakota Senator George McGovern instead.
McCarthy arrived at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago with more delegates from primary elections than any candidate, but that was only 20 % of the total. The fight for the nomination on the convention floor was overshadowed by the demonstrations and massive police violence on the streets. Many McCarthy supporters and delegates were swept up in the melees and in the early morning hours after the famous Battle of Michigan Avenue, police actually stormed McCarthy Conrad Hilton headquarters and beat staffers and demonstrators who were being sheltered there.
McCarthy reluctantly threw his support to Humphrey, but McGovern won the nomination. Many of his idealistic supporters were radicalized by the experience. McCarthy was embittered.
The senator declined to run for re-election in 1970 and even seemed to retreat from a high profile role in the chamber in his remaining two years.
But the presidential bug, once caught, is not easy to shake. McCarthy tried once more to win the Democratic Party nomination in 1972. He fell far short and had to drop out well before the convention.
While remaining a committed social liberal, he had also become increasingly distressed by the growing power of the Federal government over individual lives and had assumed libertarian positions on many issues.
Despite this apparent turn to the right, his anti-imperialist foreign policy still had support from many on the left. He abandoned the Democrats to run as an independent or under various state party titles in 1976. He gained ballot access in 30 states and was a recognized write-in in two more. In the end he garnered 740,460 popular votes—just under 1% of the total—finishing third in the election.
In his remaining years McCarthy was an increasingly isolated figure given to quixotic crusades that sometimes baffled former supporters. He considered Jimmie Carter the worst President in history. After flirting with the Libertarian Party, he endorsed Ronald Reagan in November 1980. He was also a party to a Federal law suit with William F. Buckley, the Libertarians, and the American Civil Liberties Union, that struck down most existing limits on Federal campaign contributions as an abridgement of free speech.
McCarthy’s personal life was also disrupted in the ‘70’s. He separated from his wife in 1970 but because of their strong mutual Catholic faith neither sought a divorce. Now living in the Virginia countryside, he was rumored to be having a long term secret affair with a high level woman journalist. Many suspected that it was columnist Shana Alexander. But a recent biography revealed that his lover was CBS News correspondent Marya McLaughlin. The affair continued until her death in 1998.
In 1992 McCarthy returned to the Democratic Party and campaigned once again in New Hampshire. But NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw acting as moderator of a televised debate refused to allow him to participate because “he wasn’t a serious candidate,” conferring him to the margins with such figures at Billy Jack star Tom Laughlin. It was a humiliating rejection and McCarthy subsequently withdrew from the race.
McCarthy died at the age of 89 of Parkinson’s disease in a Georgetown retirement home on December 10, 2005.
In one final, ironic insult, he was supposed to be memorialized with other prominent Democrats at the 1996 Democratic Convention. But his photo in the montage displayed to delegates and TV viewers was identified as “Senator Joseph McCarthy.”—the name of the infamous Republican anti-communist. In the end the Democrats could hardly remember who he was.