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 Washington Notebook

January 14, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 2

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent



The Real McCarthy

By Joe Feuerherd

The quadrennial search for a "new Gene McCarthy" -- a presidential candidate who turns conventional wisdom on its head, taps support from previously unknown quarters, and challenges existing orthodoxies -- is on.

From the living room of his comfortable apartment in a Georgetown retirement community, 87-year-old McCarthy, his white mane thinning but still impressive, seems flattered. "They always find one," he says of the media and its search for a maverick who catches the New Hampshire electorate's attention.

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Last time around it was on the Republican side -- Senator John McCain's "straight talk" and his New Hampshire victory over frontrunner George W. Bush -- made the Arizona senator 2000's Gene McCarthy. Others (George McGovern, Gary Hart, Pat Buchanan and Bill Clinton among them) have played the role.

McCarthy's 1968 primary campaign is the unlikely model.

"No one expected New Hampshire to be the site of a decisive battle in 1968 presidential politics," wrote St. Anselm College political scientist Danta Scala in Stormy Weather: The New Hampshire Primary and Presidential Politics. Conventional wisdom held that the state was too conservative, too pro-war, and too Protestant to accept Minnesota's McCarthy, a Catholic intellectual and former Benedictine seminarian with a reputation for aloofness.

Political veteran McCarthy -- he served 10 years in the House and was serving his second Senate term when he launched the presidential effort -- was inclined to skip New Hampshire and take on Johnson in the seemingly more hospitable climates of Wisconsin, Oregon, Massachusetts, and California. He was ultimately convinced otherwise and announced his intention to compete in the Granite State on Jan. 2, 1968, just two-and-a-half months before the March 12 primary.

It would be a sprint, not a marathon, for the former hockey and baseball standout.

Of the campaign, wrote Scala, "Its most ardent ground troops were college students who famously tidied up their appearance to go 'clean for Gene' and campaigned door-to-door for their candidate." The only issue: end the war in Vietnam.

In the eight months following his announcement, the North Vietnamese would launch their Tet Offensive, McCarthy would lose in New Hampshire (but do well enough to shock the world), Robert Kennedy would enter the race, Lyndon Johnson would withdraw, Martin Luther King and Kennedy would be assassinated, and a deeply divided Democratic Party would anoint Hubert Humphrey (who participated in no contested primaries) as its standard-bearer.

It was a helluva year.

Today's McCarthy, or the closest facsimile, is Howard Dean -- the anti-war straight-talker whose support among the young and Internet-savvy draws constant comparisons to 1968.

McCarthy knows Dean. Both were regular participants on Canadian broadcasting's "The Editors," a roundtable political discussion program made famous last week when tapes of Dean's appearances (in one of which he criticized the Iowa Caucus process as beholden to "special interests") became public.

McCarthy on this year's McCarthy: "He was kind of likable, but he talks too much. You felt like saying 'sit down and just be quiet.' But he was always well informed, which was kind of helpful to me because I didn't know the Canadian stuff so you could just have him talk and then you could find out what the subject was."

Dean's outsider strategy, says McCarthy, "can work." He noted that "Clinton ran against Washington and Jimmy Carter ran against Washington."

He's not overly impressed with the candidates or the process.

"They're all running for 'Governor' of the United States. It means they can raise issues that no one has to answer for." Education, where 90 percent of the funds come from the local level and policies are generally set by community-based school boards, is the prime example. "Education is open-ended -- there is no end to what you can spend on education and you'll still have ignorance." And no accountability from a president.

Of the process, said McCarthy, "Television kills everything -- you get so much information you don't know what to do with it. You get so many primaries you don't know what to do with them. [The candidates] are like people who have been locked up in jail -- they see too much of each other."

Dean's ability to raise money, he opted out of the federal campaign finance system and has tapped new sources of political money through the Internet, reminded McCarthy of another era.

"Jack Dreyfuss of the Dreyfuss Funds planned to give us $500,000 so they [McCarthy's advisors] said 'you better go talk to him,'" recalled McCarthy.

Was McCarthy corrupted by the big dollars? A little bit.

They met for an hour-and-a-half, but didn't talk politics.

"He had this thing about Dilantin [an anti-epileptic drug used to control seizures]. He believed that if you weren't operating at full capacity it would bring you where you should be and if you were hyper it would bring you down to where you should be."

So, recalled McCarthy, "I took two pills. I felt I owed him two pills. But it made me jump like that [he shook his hand rapidly] and I figured I didn't need it."

Still, McCarthy, a foe of current restrictions on campaign financing, mused that if he'd been elected he would have considered a program "to have every American take a Dilantin pill every morning and then we'd have this great leveling off of emotion."

Dilantin-free but in fragile health, McCarthy keeps-up on the issues:

  • The famously anti-war senator supported the 1991 Gulf War ("it was a good time to try to unite the Arabs because they all opposed Hussein"), but opposed the most recent conflict. "I don't think they know what they're getting into."
  • Of efforts to "democratize" that country, he suggested that the U.S. should first "democratize Florida."
  • On civil liberties in the post September 11 environment: "Most of it was gone before this." In 1968, he recalled, "they were tapping everybody." At first, he said, "We didn't know if it was the Kennedy's -- Bobby was a wire tapper guy" or Johnson, as was later discovered. At the 1968 convention, "the Secret Service people were honest and said to me 'your room is safe, but don't say anything on the telephone.'"
  • On members of the hierarchy, like Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wisc., who deny communion to pro-choice Catholic legislators. "It's kind of sad that this is the only thing the church can get excited about." Support for abortion, said McCarthy, "is not a good idea, but don't turn people out of the church" because of it.

Thirty-six years after his New Hampshire campaign, does McCarthy feel vindicated?

"One of the first days in New Hampshire, this soldier came up to me and gave me this little packet -- I thought it was a book." Instead, it was a medal and a note.

"I'm ashamed of what we're doing in Vietnam and I'm ashamed of what I did to get this Medal of Valor," he told McCarthy. "I don't want it. I want you to have it."

The medal, and the note from the soldier, are now encased in McCarthy's living room, one of the few mementoes of a career in public life that adorn his walls.

"If I was looking for vindication," he said "that's all I needed."

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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