Minnesota is a state known for its eclectic political figures. Paul Wellstone, Jesse Ventura, and Harold Stassen, among others, come to mind when one thinks of its populist-infused, ever-so-slightly-left-of-center political climate. Eugene McCarthy, however, might be one of the most unique of the state’s political stable. A liberal Democratic Minnesota senator, McCarthy gained prominence for his insurgent long-shot primary campaign against incumbent president Lyndon Johnson, who had suffering approval ratings in the midst of the Vietnam War.
After coming shockingly close to winning the New Hampshire primary, Johnson dropped out of the race, and the anti-war folk hero nearly won the party’s nomination before Robert Kennedy swooped in to take up the mantle. Robert Kennedy’s assassination led the heretofore unknown senator to become a temporary frontrunner, but the Democratic Party instead granted the nomination to another Minnesotan, establishment-friendly Hubert Humphrey.
The defeated McCarthy retired from the U.S. Senate in 1970, and after another failed run for president in 1972, drifted away from his former party. How far? In addition to running as an Independent in the 1976 presidential election, McCarthy became a plaintiff in the landmark campaign finance case Buckley v. Valeo, which helped eliminate caps on campaign spending due to free speech concerns. A staunch civil libertarian, McCarthy likely saw his role as a natural extension of his political philosophy.
Other moves of his during this time, however, were less consistent with his previously-held political views. Eugene McCarthy had previously supported the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished per-country immigration quotas that had existed since the 1920s. Later, however, he joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which pushes for immigration restrictions, and considered his prior support for the 1965 act a serious mistake. Perhaps the most notable stage in his later career was his support of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. He is sometimes credited with the statement ” I would rather have a competent extremist than an incompetent moderate,” but this line was actually spoken by former Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, another major Democrat for Reagan. McCarthy later labelled Jimmy Carter the worst president in American history.
After a couple additional failed runs for president, Eugene McCarthy passed away in 2005. The most prominent reference to the late senator since that time was during the 2008 Democratic convention, where the party ran a retrospective of McCarthy as the screen blared the name “Joseph McCarthy.” Quite a dumbfounding error, but perhaps more understandable in light of the senator’s fade into obscurity.