Gene McCarthy: In the Race or Out of It?

The man who toppled Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire in 1968 would like to be taken seriously in 1992

THE political figure who once stunned the nation walked in quietly, shook hands with several reporters, bantered with a few of them, and then sat down at the breakfast table. It was Eugene McCarthy, former maverick presidential contender and now an old warrior, but one who will never be forgotten.

As long as stories of memorable political contests are told, people will recall how the senator from Minnesota came out of nowhere to topple President Lyndon Johnson.

By tapping the country's rising anti-Vietnam war sentiment, Mr. McCarthy delivered a blow to President Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary from which he never recovered. Within a few weeks the president, with a further embarrassment from McCarthy looming in the Wisconsin primary, announced he would not seek reelection.

And now the "Old Warrior still witty, still combative, still so refreshingly literate - was back in the fray. He had entered the New Hampshire and about a dozen other presidential primaries. Reporters were at the breakfast to find out why this poet-politician had decided to have a go at it once again. His answer, as might be expected, contained a scholarly reference: "As Plutarch says, politics is not like a war or a game: It is never over. If you are concerned with it, you stay with it as long as you ca n. If I really thought the Democrats were challenging Bush effectively, I wouldn't bother with it."

But the journalists at the breakfast just couldn't seem capable of believing McCarthy was a serious candidate and that they should take him seriously this year.

I vividly recall the 1968 presidential bid by McCarthy. As a newsman, I spent lots of time with him. He wasn't being taken very seriously then by the press. The wisdom coming out of most reporters' typewriters said, with certainty, that Johnson would overwhelm the Minnesotan when the vote was tallied in New Hampshire.

Most accounts of McCarthy's campaign depicted a candidate who was wandering rather aimlessly around the Granite State, making some humorous speeches on college campuses and apparently going nowhere. Few observers recognized that McCarthy had a hold on the big emotional issue of the day. They didn't realize how effective those student backers of his were as they tirelessly knocked on doors in his behalf.

Once again McCarthy feels he is being ignored. He charges unfair treatment from the press and the Democratic politicians. He thinks his qualifications measure up to those of the other candidates: "When you compare my foreign policy experience with the others, I feel overqualified." He's incensed that he's being left out of the TV debates and not being included in the candidate profiles appearing in the press.

"Then this is not a whimsical candidacy?" a reporter asked.

"What do I have to do to be taken seriously?" McCarthy asked. "I'm at this breakfast. And only serious people come to this breakfast. Isn't that right?" He sounded frustrated. He certainly had a right to sound that way.

McCarthy clearly is upset with the Bush administration. "Why take on Bush?" he asks rhetorically. "Well, I think it would be good if we had a president."

"You don't think he is a president?" someone asked.

"No," he said. "Bush's the first fully no-fault president we've ever had. Start at the beginning: Bush's denial of responsibility for the Willy Horton ads. Then he blamed the economic situation on the Democrats. More recently he blamed it on the economists - said they didn't tell him the right thing...."

About here McCarthy was asked if he saw any possible parallel between Pat Buchanan's race against George Bush and his own against Johnson in '68. Might there be an explosion in the New Hampshire primary with Mr. Buchanan doing so well that he would knock President Bush out of the contest?

"No," said McCarthy, "I don't think there's that kind of an issue. Actually, where you draw the line on issues between Bush and Buchanan is very difficult." Here a journalist observed: "You, yourself, don't have the emotional issue going for you that you had back in 1968."

"No," he said. "But there are a number of issues that are very important. And it doesn't take much emotion to run against those other Democrats in New Hampshire. They're all the same: It's either high-level mediocrity or low-level superiority. I don't know what it is. It's pretty hard to sort them out."

Here a questioner started his query with these words: "At the risk of becoming serious" and McCarthy broke in: "I'm serious! I'm trying to save the republic." The Old Warrior looked over at me and shook his head.

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