Saturday, December 10, 2005
McCarthy death should have received more coverage
His actions caused the resignation of a president of the United States and indirectly caused the assassination of a presidential candidate, but there was little more than passing mention today when former U. S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, D-Minnesota, died at age 89.
McCarthy had the misfortune of sharing the date of his death with comedian Richard Pryor, who undoubtedly has been a major influence on comedians for the past three decades, but whose place in history pales in comparison to McCarthy's.
The cable news networks covered both deaths, but in the time I was watching this afternoon, spent far more time covering Pryor's death, landing interviews with Pryor's widow and Joan Rivers (?) among others. Of course, far more footage exists of Pryor, who was a fixture on television and in movies in the '70s and '80s.
Perhaps it is the age of the people who are making decisions in newsrooms. Pryor, they remember. McCarthy is just a familiar name from the dim past. There are probably many who confuse him with Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who chased Communists in the 1950s.
Eugene McCarthy was an unlikely presidential candidate, and though he had considered making a run for national office at some point, and was almost always on candidates' vice presidential lists, his place in the 1968 presidential campaign came as a result of another candidate's reluctance to run.
Political activist Allard Lowenstein was looking for an anti-war candidate to oppose sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson, and the one he wanted was Senator Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y. Kennedy was reluctant to challenge an incumbent, even though it was an incumbent whose standing had been weakened by Vietnam. Kennedy's family did not want him to run, fearing he would meet the same fate as his older brother, John F. Kennedy, had met on Nov. 22, 1963.
McCarthy was not a typical political candidate. He was uncomfortable with the art of campaigning, the hand-shaking and baby-kissing activities, and he developed a superior and contrary attitude with his campaign managers. It was his candidacy, not McCarthy, who brought thousands of young people, united in their opposition to the war, into the campaign. No one gave McCarthy a chance, but the young people rang doorbells and knocked on doors all across New Hampshire and when the New Hampshire primary results were in, McCarthy had pulled off a stunning upset.
Many wrongly recall McCarthy winning the primary; he didn't; President Johnson garnered 49 percent to 41 percent for McCarthy, but it was that showing that convinced President Johnson that he was losing his support in his party and on March 31, 1968, in a nationally-televised address, Johnson announced he would not seek a second term.
By this time, seeing that the electorate was open to an alternative, Robert Kennedy did jump into the race, something that never would have happened had McCarthy not paved the way. On June 12, 1968, shortly after winning the California primary, Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.
McCarthy continued his candidacy all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but he never had a chance. In those days, it was the old-line political bosses who ran the show and Johnson's vice president Hubert Humphrey received the nomination. Some speculate that had Kennedy lived, he would have been the candidate and we might have been spared Richard Nixon and Watergate.
I have never seen it that way. I believe Humphrey would still have been the presidential candidate, would have been beaten by Nixon, but Kennedy would have been firmly in place as Nixon's opponent for 1972, and could have once again used the Vietnam War as a campaign issue, or he could have waited until 1976 and battled against a Republican party weakened by Watergate and Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. Who knows? It's fascinating to look back at history and play the what if game.
What is sad is that the networks appear to be missing the opportunity to teach a valuable history lesson with McCarthy, one that they will never get a chance to repeat. The other key figures of that presidential race, Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey, Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and George Romney have long since died. The only remaining figure from that time is former South Dakota Senator George McGovern, who launched a short-lived candidacy as a stand-in for Kennedy after the assassination, which went nowhere, but did allow him to lay the groundwork that enabled him to grab the Democratic presidential nomination four years later.
Hopefully, someone will prove me wrong and there will be more coverage about McCarthy's death in the next couple of days. If not, Americans will know far more about Richard Pryor's place in history.