Who is Eugene J. McCarthy?
He's one of those uncommon men who puts his courage in the service of his country, and whose eloquence and energy are at the side of what is right and good.
-Lyndon B. Johnson, Former President
Eugene Joseph McCarthy was born on March 29, 1916, in the small Central Minnesota farming town of Watkins. His father, the son of Irish immigrants, was a livestock buyer and a storyteller. His mother, from devout Bavarian stock, was a gentle influence who raised four inquisitive children.
McCarthy attended the local Catholic school and was known in Watkins for being extremely bright, well-behaved and a voracious reader. He was also an excellent athlete and loved sports, particularly baseball and hockey. He left home for Collegeville, Minnesota at the age of 15 to finish high school at Saint John's Preparatory School, and he subsequently attended Saint John's University.
McCarthy has been described by his teachers at Saint John's University as "brilliant, and a student who had set a standard that was...one of our all-time records." He was also known for his wit. His classmates referred to him as the "Watkins Wonder." While in college he continued to be passionate about sports. A lanky, 6-foot-4 first baseman, he played semi-pro baseball for the Great Soo League during the summers, and in 1934-35, he was top scorer on Saint John's University's hockey team, taking it to its first state championship. He graduated from Saint John's University with highest honors in 1935 at the mere age of 19.
From 1935-40, McCarthy taught at public high schools in Tintah and Kimball, Minnesota and Mandan, North Dakota, where he met his future wife, Abigail Quigley, also a teacher. He earned a master's degree in economics and sociology from the University of Minnesota in 1939, returning to Saint John's to teach economics and education in 1940. In 1943, considering the contemplative life of a monk, he became a Benedictine novice at Saint John's Abbey. Although McCarthy left the novitiate after nine months, his Catholicism, "refined and reinforced by his years at Saint John's, was the single most important influence on his intellectual life," according to one biographer.
After leaving the novitiate, McCarthy enlisted in the Army, serving as a code breaker for the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department in Washington, D.C. In 1945, he returned to Minnesota and married Abigail, with whom he would eventually have four children and who would greatly influence his political career. After marriage, Abigail and Gene farmed in Watkins for a brief period. He then joined the faculty of St. Thomas College (now the University of St. Thomas) in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1946, where he taught economics and sociology until he entered politics in 1949.
While at St. Thomas, McCarthy became increasingly interested in politics and launched a successful campaign for a Democratic seat in the House of Representatives, where he served from 1949-1959. His genial nature and good humor made him a popular newcomer in the House, where his wit earned him the nickname "the Needle."
In 1958, McCarthy was elected to the United States Senate and began to attract more national attention. He made the nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. After President Kennedy's assassination, McCarthy was considered for the vice presidency that Hubert Humphrey ultimately won.
In 1967, he announced his candidacy for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination as a direct challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam policies. His antiwar position won wide admiration and brought thousands of supporters, especially among the young, into the political process. His strong showing in the March 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary is widely considered to have persuaded Johnson to withdraw his candidacy for reelection and to have brought Senator Robert F. Kennedy into the race. McCarthy was ultimately defeated for the Democratic nomination by Hubert H. Humphrey. McCarthy left the Senate in 1971. He launched two more unsuccessful bids for nomination to the presidency, in 1972 and 1992, as well as an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 1982.
After leaving the Senate, McCarthy worked for a time in publishing and higher education. In 1978, he took up primary residence in rural Rappahannock County, Virginia and devoted much of his time to speaking engagements and writing, eventually publishing more than 20 books of poetry and memoir/political commentary. The last of these, Parting Shots From My Brittle Bow: Reflections on American Politics and Life, was published in January 2005.
He and Abigail had separated in 1969 but remained on friendly terms. One of their daughters Mary, died in 1990, and Abigail died in 2001. McCarthy is survived by son Michael, a medical editor in Seattle, and daughters Ellen, of Bethesda, Maryland, a Democratic aide to the U.S. House Administration Committee, and Margaret, a veterinarian in Takoma Park, Maryland. A brother, Austin McCarthy of Willmar, Minnesota, a sister Marian Enright of Walnut Creek, California, and six grandchildren also survive.
Eugene McCarthy was a seminal figure in Minnesota and national politics in the last half of the 20th century. He inspired a generation of young people, caused fundamental reforms of the political process and transformed the landscape of American politics.
Eugene McCarthy's legacy as a public figure is rich and complex. Grounded in the values and ideals of Christian tradition and a deep understanding of American history, it spans politics, philosophy and poetry. From his first years in the House of Representatives to his service in the Senate, he was known for idealism and intellect expressed with great wit and eloquence. His early opposition to the war in Vietnam marked him as a man of honesty and integrity and inspired an entire generation to become actively involved in the political and civic life of our country. His courageous actions were guided by intellectual rigor and spiritual reflection, and he brought the energy of imagination, through poetry and storytelling, into the public sphere.
He not only held strong convictions on the importance of social justice and political morality born of his Catholic, Benedictine orientation, he lived out his convictions through political leadership on behalf of all peoples, regardless of religion, race or economic status. He was, above all, committed to the ideals and principles of democratic self-government.
"I am hopeful that this challenge may alleviate this sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government."
-Eugene McCarthy, 1968 Presidential Campaign.
"He was a handsome Irishman with a gift for graceful speech. He loved to stand up in front of an audience with his hands in his jacket pockets and rock back on his heels and orate..."
The Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture
Eugene McCarthy was heavily influenced by the Benedictine monks at Saint John's Abbey and University, where he spent seven years as a student and nearly a year as a member of the monastic community. At Saint John's, he was exposed to significant spiritual and intellectual movements, monasticism, liturgical renewal, social action, ecumenism, and the liberal arts - which he integrated into the fabric of his personal and professional life.
Late in life, Senator McCarthy expressed his hope "that future generations of students are exposed to the same intellectual movements I encountered as a student at Saint John's."
To fulfill this dream, and to honor and memorialize Senator McCarthy's lifetime contributions to the political, intellectual and spiritual life of America, Saint John's University has established The Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture. It will carry on Senator McCarthy's deep commitment to the ideals and principles of democratic self-government.
It will seek to inspire a new generation of young people to pursue fresh ideas, to challenge the status quo, to effect positive change in their communities and, like McCarthy himself, to lead with honesty, integrity and courage.
The memory of this remarkable and courageous man must live on as a source of inspiration for generations to come. The Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture will further his commitment to the deepest ideals of democratic self-government lived with honesty and integrity.
-Dietrich Reinhart, OSB; former President, Saint John's University
The Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture will be an annual public lecture conducted at Saint John's University featuring distinguished speakers who will discuss topics cherished by Senator McCarthy, politics, poetry, social and economic justice, constitutional reform, campaign finance as well as other public policy issues. Each lecturer will spend time in residence on campus with students and faculty exploring these issues.
Like Senator McCarthy's interests, this lecture series will be comprehensive in scope. It will emphasize, in his words, "the projection of the spiritual and intellectual ideals that I was first exposed to at Saint John's into politics and government."
"Gene McCarthy embodied values at the heart of Benedictine life and reckoned deeply with Catholic teachings on social justice and personal integrity," Br. Dietrich Reinhart, former President of Saint John's University, observed in establishing the lectureship. "He was a man whose college education and religious formation prepared him to lead others by manifesting a Christian conscience in his writing, speaking and actions."
"Through the Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture, Saint John's seeks to further Gene's vision of restoring faith in the process of American politics and government," added Reinhart. "The McCarthy Lecture will be the centerpiece of the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at Saint John's University and the College of Saint Benedict. I sincerely hope that one day soon the lectureship will evolve into a full-fledged endowed Chair in honor of Senator McCarthy. Gene dreamed that one day such a program would focus on 'social justice and its relationship to economic history and moral teachings of the Catholic Church.'"
I never called him Gene. It was always Senator, even during the many times we saw each other in the 40 years I covered him in the Senate, as a presidential candidate, and afterwards, when he became a kind of one-man Greek chorus, warning the nation of the perils that lay ahead if we didn't honor our commitments to the ideals and principles of democratic self-government. When I saw him for the last time a week before he died, I greeted him as Senator, knowing that I'd never help the frail bedridden figure celebrate his 90th birthday, as I had his 80th and 85th.
Eugene McCarthy was sui generis, literally "of his own kind." There was always something that set him apart, a space you didn't violate, an informal formality that allowed easy talk of politics and baseball and memories of Saint John's, good and bad, but left you with the feeling that you were in the presence of a special person. He was of course, a politician, first and foremost, so skilled at the art of winning votes that he could walk through a bar on the Iron Range or in South Boston, and for days afterwards people would say, "Hey, did you see Gene McCarthy here the other night?" It was an instinctive gift, like that of a great athlete who is born with it and doesn't know or care where it came from.
But he was much more. He was a poet and writer who wrote more than 16 books, a philosopher deeply grounded in the Catholic faith, an honest-to-God intellectual who could quote Plato and Yeats and Jacques Maritain and who met Pope John XXIII and Marc Chagall but knew that a cow lies down one half at a time and gets up in reverse, and could describe how a chicken acts after it's decapitated. And he had a wicked wit that could decapitate a political foe or reduce an abstruse piece of legislation into an easily understood idea. He infuriated his enemies and often perplexed his friends in his later years, but he also inspired countless people by his honesty and integrity.
Most of all, he was a man of courage who was willing to stand up at a critical moment in American history and warn the nation that it was engaged in an unwinnable war that was diplomatically indefensible, constitutionally questionable and morally wrong. When McCarthy announced his anti-war candidacy in 1967, the number of American military personnel killed in Vietnam was 15,858. When the war finally ended five years later, after he had left the Senate, the number was more than 58,000. In other words, more than 42,000 American lives, and countless Vietnamese lives as well, would have been saved had he been elected president.
His stand against the war was a singular act of courage that grows larger in retrospect and guarantees him a secure place in history of his country. He was, as he said of his friend, the late Senator Phil Hart of Michigan, "a man out of his proper time, a man meant for the Age of Faith... when men like Thomas More could make their last defense, beyond the civil law, in religious belief."
-Al Eisele is Editor of The Hill and a 1958 graduate of Saint John's University