Sen. Eugene McCarthy reflects on politics, past

In a drab apartment on the first floor of a Georgetown retirement home lives former Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose 1968 presidential campaign polarized a nation and galvanized a counter-culture movement on college campuses nationwide.

There is little in McCarthy’s three-room apartment to differentiate him from the home’s other residents. There are prints of Ben Shahn drawings, a glass frame containing the bronze star McCarthy won in World War II and several medicine bottles scattered about a round wooden table.

But in the entranceway, hiding behind a lethargic front door, is a series of photographs showing McCarthy and President John F. Kennedy – Kennedy looks at ease but McCarthy, clasping his hands, looks stiff and rigid.

Looking at photographs of McCarthy from the 1960s, it is hard to believe that a man who looks like an IBM executive could energize the anti-war movement like he did when he ran against President Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary.

McCarthy, from Minnesota, was one of the few politicians who called for the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, even as they were trouncing the communist North in a series of battles in 1966 and 1967. But in 1968, the North launched the Tet Offensive, killing thousands of American troops.

This was the climate in which McCarthy went up against Johnson, a president who only four years before was lauded for signing civil rights legislation. Many of his supporters were hippies, who shaved their beards and mustaches and forswore drugs in a “Clean for Gene” campaign.

“The Vietnam War was a product of actions taken by a succession of presidents – Harry Truman and (Dwight D.) Eisenhower and by Kennedy and by Johnson,” McCarthy said in an interview with the Hatchet earlier this month. “Each one made a contribution to extending the war.”

McCarthy’s poll numbers in the New Hampshire primary, where he lost to Johnson by only 300 votes, and Robert Kennedy’s decision to run for president led Johnson to drop out of the race. McCarthy could not capitalize on his early success, however, and the assassination of Kennedy sent the nation spiraling into grief.

“We were all right until Bobby came in … when he was killed, when somebody dies in a campaign, it changes its whole complexion,” McCarthy said. “We had to take on Bobby and he was dead.”

Kennedy’s assassination divided the Democratic Party, which ultimately nominated then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, also from Minnesota, to run against Republican Richard Nixon. McCarthy’s calls for the end to the war went unheeded, as the United States sent even more troops into Vietnam.

Thirty-five years later, McCarthy has settled comfortably into a near obscurity at age 87. He has a house in Virginia, which he frequents on the weekends, but spends most of his time in Georgetown.

“They give you breakfast and lunch and dinner, and get your pills delivered,” said McCarthy, whose flaccid cheeks quivered as he talked.

McCarthy is an avid writer and reader – on his desk was a Lyndon Johnson biography, one of many about the former president he has read. Since retiring from the Senate in 1971, he has written more than a dozen books about politics, and he continues to submit opinion articles to various newspapers.

“I kind of quit sending stuff to The (Washington) Post and The (New York) Times because they reject it all anyway,” he said. “I got a couple of newspapers (in Minnesota) that print anything I send them.”

McCarthy is an outspoken opponent of primaries, which he said forces candidates of the same party to attack each other. Democratic presidential candidates are divided in their opinion about the war in Iraq, which would hurt them in their fight to defeat President Bush.

“The primaries are a bad thing, especially for the Democrats under these circumstances,” he said. “You have to take positions against your own people and you have to take issues that are not clear.

“The (Bush) administration has every advantage – they can get public attention, they can say things and repeat them as though they were true,” he added.

Support for the reconstruction of Iraq will only wane if American deaths reach Vietnam-like numbers, said McCarthy, adding that an escalating death toll is inevitable.

“It’s not a kind of a war you can win,” he said. “It’s just a question of when that will happen and what the circumstances are.”

In the last few months, McCarthy’s name has reappeared in the news as pundits have taken to comparing him to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a vociferous opponent of the Iraqi war.

“That’s just people who are tired that don’t have anything to write about,” said McCarthy, who still seems sensitive to criticism.

Strangely though, McCarthy sounds a lot like Dean in saying that he would not hesitate to pull out of Iraq if he were president.

“I get these questions, ‘What would you do today?’ ‘What would you do right now?'” he said. “I’d just say get out.”

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