Eugene McCarthy

"Get Clean for Gene"

part 1, 2

Eugene McCarthy
Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration

It often seemed that Eugene McCarthy didn't want to win the White House very badly. But the relatively unknown Midwestern senator with the aloof campaign style managed to capsize the career of his party's incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson.

McCarthy was a Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota. He was one of two Minnesotans who would vie for the party's nomination in 1968 (the other was Vice President Hubert Humphrey). Colleagues warned McCarthy it was political suicide to challenge his party's president. McCarthy declared he had no choice. It was the most effective way, he said, to protest what he called the "immoral war" Johnson's administration was waging in Vietnam. McCarthy said the war was poisoning America's civic spirit.

"Of all the people running I'm probably the one who least would like the presidency," McCarthy told a TV interviewer on the campaign trail. "But it kind of fell to me to make the test on this issue since no one else would do it."

McCarthy's 1968 campaign has been described as the work of a "reluctant rebel." He was a classic liberal reformer - a civil rights and social justice Democrat - with well-established anti-communist credentials. McCarthy's campaign against the war was fueled not by a desire to get along with the communist North, but by a belief that government should operate on a high moral plane in service to the people. To McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson was deceiving the public on the prospects for victory in Vietnam. Johnson's war seemed without end and the cost was strangling desperately-needed domestic programs.

McCarthy said the war in Vietnam was not only destroying a "small and weak" nation across the sea, but also provoking a "deepening moral crisis" at home. Americans were alarmingly alienated from their government, he warned. The war was also undermining the honor and authority of the United States abroad, he said.

McCarthy's first presidential campaign test was in New Hampshire. That state's primary would be March 12. Initial signs were discouraging. Few voters knew who Eugene McCarthy was. His New Hampshire campaign started with $400 in the bank.

Youthful supporters of Eugene McCarthy were urged to "Get Clean for Gene."
Courtesy University of Minnesota

Inspired by McCarthy's anti-war talk, volunteers poured into New Hampshire from across the country. Hundreds of high school and college students were among them. "The kids started coming and tramping the snows of New Hampshire and knocking on doors and all that romantic stuff," former McCarthy staffer Ann Hart told an interviewer in 1969. "[They] slept on floors and ate doughnuts and coffee and peanut butter."

To keep from alienating the generally conservative voters of New Hampshire, volunteers with unruly hair or beards were encouraged to find a barber. The motto: "Get clean for Gene."

Celebrities who opposed the Vietnam War also braved the New Hampshire winter. Movie star Paul Newman flew in to campaign on Main Street in Nashua, N.H. Actors Tony Randall and Rod Serling made radio ads for McCarthy. "If you think the war is being conducted with skill and wisdom then there's no need for change," Serling declared in his familiar Twilight Zone voice. "If you agree that we can do better, then vote for Senator Eugene McCarthy."

Science fiction writer Arthur Herzog (The Swarm; Orca) helped run McCarthy's campaign in the southern New Hampshire town of Salem. At first, Herzog's view from the storefront campaign headquarters looked bleak. "We couldn't find anybody who liked McCarthy or even knew who he was," Herzog said in a 1969 oral history interview. "So we started working at it and within eight days people were wearing McCarthy buttons and there were traffic jams in the streets. It was the most amazing turnabout that you ever saw."

Events in Vietnam helped McCarthy gain traction. On January 30, 1968, North Vietnamese forces launched what would become known as the Tet Offensive (it occurred at the time of the Vietnamese New Year, called "Tet"). Communist rebels struck in force against cities, towns and villages across South Vietnam. Tet was a military failure for North Vietnam. But it was also a political disaster for LBJ. He had been promising an imminent military victory for so long that the North's ambitious attack shocked Americans. Johnson's setback was McCarthy's advantage.

Continue to part 2