The Magazine

From Gene to Dean

The children's crusade in American politics.

Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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McCarthy won his first race for Congress in 1948. He was a protégé of Hubert Humphrey, then the dynamo mayor of Minneapolis who had led the purge of Communists from the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. Like Humphrey--and like Harry Truman, their national leader--McCarthy was a committed Cold Warrior, his anti-communism as much a part of his Catholic disposition as his watered socialism.

In Washington he was a competent congressman but easily bored. He preferred to attend windy conferences on such topics as "the intersection of Catholic thought and political action," and he thereby made a name for himself as a political intellectual in the mold of Adlai Stevenson (although, unlike Stevenson, he insisted on writing his books himself). When a Senate seat opened up in 1958, the party elders suggested he take it.

By the middle of his second Senate term, however, he was bored again and drifting leftward, away from the anti-Communist consensus that had undergirded his career, and his party, for twenty years. The immediate cause was Lyndon Johnson's feckless prosecution of the Vietnam War. McCarthy fell also under the influence of Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, the increasingly dovish chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. As intellectual influences go, this was a step down from Thomas Aquinas.

With Fulbright, McCarthy formed the nucleus of an antiwar cell in the Senate and within the national Democratic party--"bomb-throwers," Johnson called them, without irony. But as a national figure McCarthy was still second tier in 1967. An itinerant group of activists wandered the Senate office building in search of a senator who would dare run against Johnson's then-assured reelection bid, solidifying the new "peace movement" by turning it into a presidential campaign. For a Democratic officeholder, taking on the party establishment so decisively would mean an end to any larger ambition, and everyone who was asked, beginning with Robert Kennedy, said no. Only McCarthy, after much shuffling of feet, said yes. To this day it's hard to know why. The announcement of his candidacy was typically diffident. Appearing before the press in the Senate Caucus Room, he never used the words "candidate" or even "nomination." He said only that he would put the antiwar position "before the people," to see how they would respond.

A campaign poster from 1968 showed a bird's-eye photo of McCarthy standing by himself in an otherwise empty plaza patterned in brick. The legend read: "He Stood Up Alone and Something Happened." Well, yes. McCarthy nearly beat Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later Kennedy joined the race. Two weeks after that, Johnson dropped out. Three weeks later, Humphrey became a candidate and eventually, in the riot-riven convention that August, his party's nominee. At the end of the year, Kennedy was dead, Johnson was exiled to ignominious retirement, Richard Nixon was president-elect--and according to a national poll, among people under the age of twenty-four Eugene McCarthy was the most popular man in America.

IN A WAY--to return to today's headlines and parallel-drawing--Howard Dean's mobilization of a large army of young volunteers is more impressive than McCarthy's. In the 1960s politics had not yet earned the dismal reputation it enjoys today, when it appears to most Americans, young and old, as not merely irrelevant but, worse, the exclusive domain of hobbyists and cranks, in thrall to the bellowing narcissists who strut across the sets of "Hardball" and "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Hannity and Colmes." Unless you have a natural taste for it, politics in the age of cable and blogs must seem as cultic as a "Star Trek" convention--and what sensible person, watching a foam-flecked debate over the relative merits of Spock and Bones, would want to be a Trekkie? Yet somehow from this slough of indifference Dean has conjured passion and excitement, and he has done so among a class of people who might otherwise have been thought to have better things to do, like study.

Mccarthy had an easier time of it. Thanks to the military draft, politics had a built-in relevance for young people, especially young men, in 1968; if they couldn't end the war in Vietnam by "working within the system" and "participating in the political process," there was a reasonable chance they would be sent to a jungle very far away and get shot. Such a prospect imposes its own kind of urgency. And when McCarthy presented himself as the only plausible vehicle for altering the course of the war, tens of thousands quite understandably signed up. These weren't just Johnson's political opponents, these young folk, they were his potential victims. The Children's Crusade was an act of self-defense.