In 1968, McCarthy ran as an anti-Vietnam war candidate in a series of Democratic primaries. He did well enough in New Hampshire to cause President Johnson (whose name did not appear on the ballot) to announce that he would not run for re-election. McCarthy’s success led Robert Kennedy, who had been holding back, to enter the race. The big showdown between the two occurred in California. Kennedy won, but was killed on election night. The Democrats went on to nominate McCarthy’s fellow Minnesotan, Vice President Humphrey, at a convention marred by rioting. Humphrey was narrowly defeated by Richard Nixon in the general election. They don’t make political campaigns like that anymore, which is just as well.
McCarthy’s most ardent supporters were college students. Most of my anti-war friends preferred him to Kennedy, as I did (and still do). First, McCarthy had shown more guts than Kennedy by challenging Johnson before it was clear how weak the president’s position was. Second, McCarthy came across as cool; Kennedy as anything but. Yet deep down, most of the college kids I knew were mainly just interested in becoming involved. One of my friends left college for Indiana, where a primary had just been held, in order to join up with the McCarthy campaign, which was heading to Oregon. When he missed the plane, the Kennedy campaign offered to pay his way to Oregon, and he defected.
In many respects, some of them superficial, Robert Kennedy’s position in 1967 can be compared to Hillary Clinton’s position today. It’s more difficult to identify the new Gene McCarthy (it’s certainly not Howard Dean). He was one of a kind.