Eugene McCarthy, R.I.P. When famous people die, they are usually overpraised in fulsome superlatives, well meant but losing all proportion. I’ve complained about this before, and I try to resist the temptation. I’ll try to resist it today; it won’t be easy but respect for the man himself forbids exaggeration of his virtues. He wouldn’t have welcomed compliments he didn’t deserve; I’m not sure he relished even the ones he did deserve.
I barely knew of Gene McCarthy until he created a sensation by challenging Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire; he lost, but his strong showing against a sitting president stunned the country and caused Johnson to withdraw from the race a couple of weeks later.
McCarthy’s theme was simple: The Vietnam War was a mistake. Suddenly, the antiwar movement had a major candidate, a liberal with an attractively conservative demeanor. Shaggy college students, getting “clean for Gene,” got haircuts—hair was a big cultural issue in 1968—and adopted middle-class camouflage, including even neckties, in order to serve his cause among ordinary voters. “Working within the System,” it was called. Opposition to the war no longer seemed subversive or radical.
No sooner had McCarthy shocked Johnson than Bobby Kennedy was emboldened to jump...