Eugene McCarthy was first elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1948. At the time he was a member of the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party. McCarthy served five terms in the House before winning a seat in the United States Senate in 1958. He became better known within the party as the result of a speech he made at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in support of Adlai Stevenson. Lyndon Johnson considered selecting McCarthy as his running mate in 1964, but decided instead to pick McCarthy's fellow Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.
As the war in Vietnam progressed, McCarthy became a vocal opponent of the war and stated that he might challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination. The Americans for Democratic Action, an anti-war organization, announced that they would support McCarthy's campaign if he decided to run. Johnson became concerned. He told some Democratic congressional leaders that he was concerned about McCarthy obtaining the support of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Benjamin Spock, splintering the Democratic party. McCarthy privately told Hubert Humphrey that he did not believe he could win the nomination, but he felt "very strongly about the war," and he thought that the best way to do something about the war was to "go on out and enter the primaries."
On November 30, 1967, McCarthy formally announced that he was seeking his party's nomination for President. In making this announcement, he said:
"I run because this country is now involved in a deep crisis of leadership; a crisis of national purpose – and a crisis of American ideals. It is time to substitute a leadership of hope for a leadership of fear. This is not simply what I want, or what most of us want. It is, I believe, the deepest hunger of the American soul."
McCarthy said that it was important to prevent President Johnson from being nominated, in order to end the war in Vietnam. He was concerned about how Americans were losing faith in their political system and how they were feeling helpless while the youth of America was dying in a foreign war and that no one understood why Americans were there in the first place.
A few days after McCarthy's announcement, the Johnson administration made an announcement on the war in Vietnam concerning an increase in America's military presence there. McCarthy believed that such the announcement would only strengthen his campaign. In January of 1968
McCarthy reaffirmed his goal to defeat Johnson in the New Hampshire primary and also said that he would probably challenge Johnson in the Florida primary. He appeared as a guest of the ABC news show Issues and Answers, and claimed that the North Vietnamese government was willing to negotiate a settlement of the war, and that any further bombing should be halted to allow these negotiations to take place. He asked for the opportunity to give a televised rebuttal to President Johnson's upcoming annual State of the Union Address but his request was denied.
Later in January, McCarthy delivered a speech in front of 6,500 students at University Park, Pennsylvania, that criticized the Johnson administration for being "afraid to negotiate" with the North Vietnamese. Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy had announced that he would support Johnson as the Democratic nominee, even though his views did not accord with Johnson's on the prosecution of the war. Speaking in St. Louis in late January, McCarthy continued his anti-war message, telling his audience that "no nation has a right to destroy a nation" under the guise of nation building. He also called for normalized relations with Cuba.
In february, McCarthy planned to visit Miami, Florida. Local Democrats decided to stage their own rally in the state in support of Johnson, but it was unclear if the plan had originated from the White House. Diversionary tactics were used to draw attention from a McCarthy appearance by a Florida Democratic Party meeting on the same days in Tallahassee. Nonetheless, McCarthy gave a speech about civil rights during the trip. Following the speech, the Conference of Concerned Democrats unanimously decided to award him pledged delegates from the state of Florida. Still, no members of Congress expressed strong support for McCarthy and most were still backing Johnson. The endorsement of the Americans for Democratic Action gave McCarthy their support and this was significant as it was the first time in 20 years that they did not support the incumbent president. That month McCarthy announced that he would let his name be on the ballot in the Pennsylvania primary, turning in 3,400 signatures on the filing deadline.
As March of 1968 began, McCarthy was criticized for being late for a senate vote to prevent a Southern filibuster against a civil rights bill drafted by his fellow Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale. Despite this, three precincts in Minnesota elected McCarthy supported delegates to caucuses, contrary to the wishes of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. Johnson decided not to fight in the Massachusetts caucuses, conceding 72 delegates to McCarthy.
But the real test would be in New Hampshire where McCarthy had spent a large amount of time campaigning in the state's critical primary. Johnson's campaign ran on the message that "the communists in Vietnam are watching the New Hampshire primary. Don't vote for fuzzy thinking and surrender." Opinion polls prior to the New Hampshire primary showed that McCarthy's support stood at only 10 to 20 percent. But these polls turned out wrong. Though he did not win the primary, he received a surprising 42.2 percent of the vote to Johnson's 49.4 percent. The media called the results a "moral victory" for McCarthy.
On March 16, Robert Kennedy changed his mind and announced that he had decided to enter the race for the presidency. There was some speculation that McCarthy might defer to Kennedy, who was perceived as a much more electable anti-war candidate. But McCarthy remained in the race. When asked about Kennedy's candidacy, he said that he was "better qualified to run for the presidency" than Kennedy. McCarthy prepared himself for the Wisconsin primary. He ran ads in newspapers throughout the state which set out his platform in which he called for increased federal aid for education, collective bargaining rights for farmers, a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, construction of at least one million new housing units each year, and more federal funds to fight pollution. He was critical of the government of South Vietnam, accusing the regime of extreme corruption and tyranny of its people. He also announced his intentions to enter the primaries in Indiana, Florida, and California.
On March 31, President Lyndon Johnson surprised everyone by announcing that he was dropping out of the race and would not seek to be renominated for the presidency. Without Johnson in the race, McCarthy easily won the Wisconsin Primary, although Robert Kennedy, who not on the ballot because he entered the race following the filing deadline. After Johnson's withdrawal, McCarthy;s polling numbers rose to reached 22 percent among the Democratic candidates, up eleven points, but still two points behind Hubert Humphrey (who had not yet declared his candidacy) and fifteen behind Kennedy. While campaigning in Pennsylvania for the state's primary in late April, he was asked about North Korea's seizing of the USS Pueblo. He told reporters that the United States should "expect to pay ransom if you have ships adjacent to countries that don't respect international law." He later backtracked from this statement and said that he was not suggesting that a ransom should be paid, and agreed that President Johnson's use of negotiation was the correct course. On April 23, McCarthy won the Pennsylvania Primary, receiving more votes than Kennedy, whose name was on the ballot but who ran as a write-in candidate.
Robert Kennedy began to decline in the polls, as McCarthy came within two points of Humphrey. These polls suggested that McCarthy was more likely than his Democratic rivals to defeat Republican Richard Nixon in a head to head contest, leading 40 to 37 percent in a Harris poll. McCarthy lost the Indiana primary to Kennedy, receiving 27 percent of the vote to Kennedy's 42 percent. Kennedy defeated McCarthy in the Nebraska primary but it did not McCarthy, who confirmed that he would compete with Kennedy in Oregon, California and South Dakota. He ended the month by defeating Kennedy in the Oregon primary by a margin of 45 to 39 percent. The victory rejuvenated McCarthy's campaign, setting the stage for the all important California primary.
McCarthy and Kennedy vigorously campaigned throughout California in the beginning of June. Kennedy announced he would leave the race if he lost the state's primary. On June 5, Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles after winning both the California and South Dakota primaries. Kennedy died the next day. McCarthy was saddened and shocked by this and considered dropping out of the race. Following Kennedy's funeral, McCarthy privately met with both Johnson and Humphrey to discuss the future of the Democratic Party.
The primaries were now over and McCarthy met with uncommitted delegates. He considered going to Paris to discuss peace with the North Vietnamese, but was discouraged from doing so by the negotiators who advised him that the talks were too important "to interject partisan politics."
McCarthy argued for a national registration of handguns, and the development of a system to sell mail order guns only to qualified individuals. But argued that the sale of shotguns and rifles, should be left to the discretion of individual states. He also called for a "war on hunger" to help those Americans living below the poverty line.
McCarthy challenged Humphrey to a series of debates on an assortment of issues. Humphrey accepted the invitation said that he would only agree to one debate prior to the Democratic National Convention. As the convention approached, McCarthy worked unsuccessfully to change some of the rules of the convention, trying to remove the "unit voting" rule, which gave party bosses more control.
McCarthy's campaign suffered a setback when Senator George McGovern of South Dakota entered the race, claiming to be the successor to the campaign of Robert Kennedy. This divided the anti-Humphrey vote. The McCarthy campaign accused Democratic National Chairman John Bailey was giving preferential treatment to Humphrey, to the detriment of McCarthy. They asked for the chairman's resignation, but he refused to do so, claiming that the two candidates were receiving "exactly the same treatment in hotel space, amphitheatre space, telephone service, tickets, transportation and every other phase of convention activity."
As the eve of the convention dawned, Humphrey appeared to hold a lead over McCarthy among the delegates with McGovern in a distant third, but many delegates were still uncommitted. Meanwhile, on the streets of Chicago, anti-war protests raged as 6,000 federal troops and 18,000 Illinois National Guard defended the convention center. Humphrey won the nomination on the first ballot, with 1759.25 votes, compared to 601 for McCarthy and 146.5 for McGovern.
McCarthy's supporters urged him to run as an independent candidate against Nixon, Humphrey and George Wallace. He announced that he would not do do so. He refused to endorse Humphrey initially, but in October, he set out conditions for such an endorsement. These included a shift in Humphrey's stance on the Vietnam War, a change of the military draft, and a reform of the Democratic machine politics. Humphrey discussed these with McCarthy via telephone, but did not capitulate. At the end of October, McCarthy announced that he would vote for Humphrey, but would go no further than that.
Richard Nixon won the election, and McCarthy received 20,721 write-in votes in California and 2,751 in Arizona, where he was listed as the nominee of the anti-war New Party. McCarthy also ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972, but soon dropped out. He ran as an independent in 1976 and received over 700,000 votes. During the 1980s, McCarthy was a supporter of the Reagan administration. He ran twice again for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and 1992. But the closest he would come to the presidency was in 1968. Eugene McCarthy died on December 10, 2005 at the age of 89.