ARLINGTON, Va. -- Former Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose near-upset
of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary 30 years ago
effectively ended LBJ's political career, continues being a source of the
unexpected and unorthodox.
In a symposium the other day on the explosive year
1968, Mr. McCarthy in his wistful way suggested that those who, like himself,
put themselves on the political firing line to try to stop U.S. involvement
in the Vietnam War should be honored in the way those who fought it have
"There should be another Vietnam monument to those
who opposed the war," he said in a discussion at the Newseum, the year-old
museum of the news business. There should be "a monument for everybody
else that did anything about it," he said, "especially to young people
who opposed the war because it was the most significant historically of
any development that accompanied the war in Vietnam."
Mr. McCarthy, in whose anti-war campaign for the
Democratic presidential nomination thousands of college students enlisted
and pledged to be "clean for Gene," has always marched to his own drummer.
After his campaign that helped persuade LBJ not to seek another term, he
went on to run again as an independent and later supported Ronald Reagan
Now at 82, he remains as acerbically philosophical
as ever. Of his young charges in 1968, he said, "there is no real substantial
recognition. What we did was to leave the responsibility for a very significant
moral decision to the younger generation of society. The politicians, the
press avoided it."
Mr. McCarthy charged that "politicians avoided all
the institutions that had prior responsibility" so that "making decisions
about the morality of the war and even about the wisdom of it fell to a
large extent upon people who had no political power."
The former senator from Minnesota on another occasion
has said he decided to challenge the sitting president of his own party
in 1968 because "Johnson was abusing the Senate" by ignoring its constitutional
role in foreign policy and because in his whole career, he himself "had
been concerned with the function of institutions in government."
Mr. McCarthy said then that LBJ, his secretary of
state, Dean Rusk, and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, were contemptuous
of the Senate in their misleading statements on the progress of the war
and that the Senate itself failed to face up to the war. "I was frustrated,"
he said then. "You couldn't get the Senate to do anything, which is where
the battle should have been fought, primarily."
Mr. McCarthy's latest suggestion of a memorial to
war protesters, perhaps fanciful and in any event highly unlikely, was
the most novel observation in the two-day retrospective in which others
also paid tribute to those who opposed the war.
Todd Gitlin, a founder of the radical Students for
a Democratic Society who is now a highly respected professor of culture,
journalism and sociology at New York University, argued that the picture
of anti-war protesters as draft-dodgers motivated by a desire to save their
own skins was wrong.
It was easy to stay out of uniform by getting a college
deferment, he said, and all young people had to do was remain quiet; instead
they got into trouble with the government and many jeopardized their futures
This view was not universally shared by the symposium
panelists. Maureen Reagan, daughter of the former president and a Republican
Party activist, said of those like herself who supported the U.S. effort
in Vietnam, "We became the warmongers, and they were the saints."
But the civil-rights movement of the time, which
under the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was increasingly joining forces with
the anti-war movement, "was seen as an enemy of the state," said Jesse
Jackson, then a King lieutenant.
In a discussion of the counterculture in 1968, folk
singer Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) argued that the protesters
"sought the good fight . . . to achieve the dream" of a better society.
And Country Joe McDonald, the composer and leader of Country Joe and the
Fish, praised the courage of war protesters within the military who spoke
up at their personal peril. A memorial to the protest movement certainly
would open old wounds, and for that reason is itself a dream. But Gene
McCarthy was never one to duck taking on the "impossible."
Source: The Sun's Washington bureau
Authors: Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover
Published Date: 05/06/98