December 2005

I rise today to pay tribute to a great Minnesotan and a great American: former Senator Eugene McCarthy, who passed away last Saturday at the age of 89.

Senator McCarthy served two terms in this body, from 1958 to 1970, after serving five terms in the United States House of Representatives. In addition to his very distinguished legislative career, he is best remembered for his historic Presidential campaign in 1968, in which he deposed an incumbent President.

Eugene Joseph McCarthy was born on March 29, 1916, in Watkins, Minnesota. He graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 1935, and then earned a masters degree in Economics and Sociology at the University of Minnesota. After college, he spent nine months as a novice in a Benedictine seminary.

The world pulled him away, however, and he played semiprofessional baseball; taught high school social science; was a professor at his alma mater, St. John’s; and then chaired the Sociology Department at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

During World War II, he worked in a military intelligence division of the War Department. He married a fellow teacher, Abigail Quigley, with whom he has three daughters and a son. Abigail McCarthy passed away in 2001.

In 1948, Gene McCarthy was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota’s fourth Congressional district. While in the House, Congressman McCarthy founded ‘McCarthy’s Mavericks,’ which was the forerunner of the Democratic Study Group – that would, in succeeding decades, be influential in developing many important legislative initiatives.

In 1952, he was the first Member of Congress to challenge Senator Joseph McCarthy in a nationally televised debate on foreign policy. This political courage presaged his decision, 15 years later, to challenge an incumbent President.

In 1958, Congressman McCarthy defeated an incumbent Senator to become Senator McCarthy. He was reelected to the Senate in 1964, with over 60 percent of the vote. Then, in November, 1967, he announced his candidacy for president – challenging the incumbent President of his own party – Lyndon Johnson.

In his announcement speech, he said, ‘I am hopeful that this challenge may alleviate this sense of political helplessness, and restore to many people a belief in the process of American politics and of American government.’

His candidacy ignited a new generation of political activists – many of them young college students who shaved, showered, and went ‘Clean for Gene.’

They swarmed into New Hampshire for the first political contest of 1968. There, they helped Senator McCarthy transform the political landscape by holding President Johnson to 49 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, with 42 percent voting for Senator McCarthy.

Seldom has a second-place finish been considered such a victory. Two weeks later, President Johnson withdrew his candidacy for reelection.

Shortly thereafter, fellow Senator, Robert Kennedy, and fellow Minnesotan, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, entered the Presidential contest – two actions that Gene McCarthy would never forget nor forgive.

The Democratic contest became divisive in subsequent primaries, then catastrophic with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, then destructive at the tumultuous national convention in Chicago that nominated Hubert Humphrey, not Gene McCarthy.

The nominee and the party did not recover from that disastrous convention, and Richard Nixon was elected President in November. The Vietnam War continued for seven more years.

Gene McCarthy retired from the Senate in 1970 and never again held public office. Some of his later remarks – reflecting his disenchantment and his defiance – along with his acerbic wit – dismayed some Democrats and disillusioned some former supporters.

Gene McCarthy, however, was always his own man. He once said that his definition of patriotism was ‘to serve one’s country not in submission, but to serve it in truth.’

He used his pen and his tongue to speak his own truth, regardless of the personal or political consequences.

In that respect, he was a true patriot. After he was decried by Johnson supporters as a mere ‘footnote in history’ he retorted ‘I think we can say that about Churchill, but what a footnote!’

You were much more than a footnote, Senator McCarthy. You were a United States Senator; you made history; and you changed history.

You were true to yourself, to your ideals, and to your convictions. You were a poet, a philosopher, and a patriot; a great Minnesotan and a great American. May you rest in peace.