by Albert Eisele

ON JANUARY 17, 1978, four days after returning from the funeral of former Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s funeral, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote to President Carter to thank him for inviting him to join him on Air Force One for the flight from Minneapolis to Washington. The New York Democrat wanted to follow up on a conversation they had during the flight about how history would judge Humphrey and his fellow Minnesotan Eugene McCarthy.

“I am concerned that I did not make a sufficient case for Gene McCarthy,” Moynihan wrote. “The point to be made is that he recognized the moral crisis which the country had come to in 1968 and acted to resolve it. This is precisely what Hubert Humphrey had done, with respect to another moral crisis, twenty years earlier. It was to be the bitter irony of Humphrey’s life that when the time came that the country was at least ready to reward what he had done in the earlier crisis, he was overwhelmed by the subsequent one. One can understand his feelings about McCarthy’s role. And yet, is it not in the nature of moral crises that they leave but little room for friendship, even at times of civility?”

Moynihan added, “It is the fact, I should think, that half the persons in your administration under age 40 came into politics at the behest of Gene McCarthy. Literally he summoned them; and they came. And yet there now seems no place for him in our public life.”

There is no record of Carter’s response, if any, but Moynihan’s words provided a fitting epitaph for both Humphrey and McCarthy.

While Humphrey was the symbol of the American dream to many Americans who had not yet realized it, his obsession with seeing that the nation share her bounty with all her citizens proved to be one of his greatest weaknesses. He was too absorbed in the visions of the Great Society and in his own unfulfilled yearning for the presidency to recognize that the Vietnam War was a moral and political failure.

The man who did recognize it and warned against it at a critical moment in American history was McCarthy. His decision to challenge President Johnson’s bid for reelection in 1968, and Humphrey’s subsequent candidacy after Johnson decided against running, changed the course of American history.

The consequences of his opposition to the war were later obscured by his own unorthodox behavior, but whatever judgment one makes of McCarthy the man or the politician, the end of American military involvement in Vietnam during the Nixon administration was a direct result of his challenge and remains his most fitting monument.

McCarthy showed that it is possible for one man to make a difference in a democratic society, and that not even the immense power of the presidency can withstand the pressure of opposition from a public aroused by someone who speaks out against what he sees as an immoral action by his government. It is likely that no president will ever again assume that he can ignore such a challenge, as Richard Nixon found out in 1972 and that future presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, would also learn to their dismay.

At the same time, McCarthy was obsessed with doing all he could in 1972 and future years to elect a president who came closest to meeting the three principles exemplified by his political role model, Adlai Stevenson: “First, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind in world affairs; second, a willingness to accept the judgment of the majority and the popular will in domestic politics, as manifest in party conventions or in general elections; and third, an unselfish surrender of his own personal reputation and image for the good of the common effort if, in his judgment, that surrender would advance the cause of justice and order and civility.”

Whether McCarthy is destined be remembered as the midwife of a new day in American politics or merely as a brilliant gadfly of the old, it is clear that American politics still reflects the dedication to reforming political processes and limiting executive power that characterized his public career. While he is long gone from the American scene, McCarthy is certain to occupy a secure place in American history.