Eugene McCarthy was one of the most fascinating political figures of the postwar era: a committed liberal anti-Communist who broke with his party’s leadership over Vietnam and ultimately helped take down the political giant Lyndon B. Johnson. His presidential candidacy in 1968 seized the hearts and fired the imaginations of countless young liberals; it also presaged the declining fortunes of liberalism and the rise of conservatism over the past three decades.
Dominic Sandbrook traces Eugene McCarthy’s rise to prominence and his subsequent failures, and makes clear how his story embodies the larger history of American liberalism over the last half century. We see McCarthy elected from Minnesota to the House and then to the Senate, part of a new liberal movement that combined New Deal domestic policies and fierce Cold War hawkishness, a consensus that produced huge electoral victories until it was shattered by the war in Vietnam.
As the situation in Vietnam escalated, many liberals, like McCarthy, found themselves increasingly estranged from the anti-Communism that they had supported for nearly two decades. Sandbrook recounts McCarthy’s growing opposition to President Johnson and his policies, which culminated in McCarthy’s stunning near-victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary and Johnson’s subsequent withdrawal from the race. McCarthy went on to lose the nomination to Hubert Humphrey at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which secured his downfall and led to Richard Nixon’s election, but he had pulled off one of the greatest electoral upsets in American history, one that helped shape the political landscape for decades.
These were tumultuous times in American politics, and Sandbrook vividly captures the drama and historical significance of the period through his intimate portrait of a singularly interesting man at the center of it all.
Eugene McCarthy's place in history as a cynosure of the anti Vietnam War movement is universally acknowledged. Yet McCarthy remains an enigmatic figure to supporters and opponents alike. Sandbrook's biography attempts to take the measure of the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate as a man and as a politician and McCarthy (b. 1916) fares badly in both categories. Sandbrook, a British scholar of American history, argues that as a politician McCarthy, who served for two decades in the House and the Senate, achieved far less than contemporaries such as John F. Kennedy, Johnson or Humphrey, despite his superior intelligence and natural charisma. Specifically, Sandbrook contends that McCarthy brought no new ideas into the political arena, never won his party's presidential nomination and gave his name to no major bills. Given the rarified sphere that McCarthy occupied, and the scope and depth of the accomplishments of those to whom he is compared, it is arguable that Sandbrook's view is too harsh. But the comments by contemporaries of McCarthy's personal qualities are often damning indeed. Sandbrook quotes from a variety of McCarthy's fellow politicians, friends, family and the press to present the picture of a man who, for all his gifts, was, in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "indolent, frivolous, cynical," or as described by Gilbert Harrison, a friend and former editor of the New Republic, "lazy," "unresponsive" and "insensitive." McCarthy's reported response to the assassination of his 1968 campaign opponent Robert Kennedy was a callous "e brought it on himself." Sandbrook's biography will command attention and spark discussion about this controversial career and McCarthy's role in the end of the New Deal liberal consensus.