Robert Novak, a great and controversial political reporter, judged Eugene McCarthy’s nomination of Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles to be “the greatest national convention speech I ever heard.”
The Minnesota senator’s words echo in my memory: “Do not reject this man who, his enemies said, spoke above the heads of the people, but they said it only because they didn’t want the people to listen. He spoke to the people. He moved their minds, and he stirred their hearts, and this was what was objected to. Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party.”
I re-read that speech because I was invited to give the Eugene J. McCarthy lecture at the beautiful campus of St. John’s University in Minnesota, where McCarthy, an exceptional student and athlete (baseball and hockey), graduated at age 19. He entered the monastery of the Benedictine fathers who founded St. John’s, and when he left the seminary — to eventually become a husband, father, U.S. congressman, senator and, in 1968, the anti-Vietnam War presidential candidate challenging his fellow Democrat in the White House, Lyndon Johnson — the Rev. Colman Barry would tell author Al Eisele that “it was like losing a 20-game winner.”
On Nov. 30, 1967, I stood in the caucus room of what is now called the Russell Senate Office Building and heard McCarthy launch his presidential candidacy: “I am concerned that the administration seems to have set no limit to the price which it is willing to pay for a military victory” and to state his support “for an honorable, rational and political solution to this war.”
He was, even his political enemies conceded, a man of the mind — yes, a man of biting wit, and a man of conviction. To him, politics was fundamentally a moral enterprise with emphasis on community, justice and the common good.
He was a man for whom you could feel more admiration than affection. But ultimately to me — even though I was proud to work that year for his anti-war Democratic opponent, Robert Kennedy — McCarthy was a man of courage, the kind of rare courage that was to change American history and to change, to this day, the way we select and nominate our national leaders.
When McCarthy began his lonely, long-shot campaign, only 19 percent of the convention delegates were even chosen in open presidential primaries. Eighty-one percent of all the convention delegates were chosen in procedures that were mostly not democratic, not open and not even timely.
More than half of the delegates to the 1968 Democratic National Convention had been chosen in 1966. (Hubert Humphrey would become the presidential nominee after having avoided running in every primary.) Because McCarthy’s insurgent campaign exposed both how closed and how rigged the system was to exclude rank-and-file voters, the old order became doomed. Every future president, because of McCarthy, would have to win the nomination in open, competitive contests.
In classical times, after Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, “How well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes had finished his speech, the people said, “Let us march.” McCarthy did not speak with the pre-tested applause lines of the practiced platform performer. But when he spoke, literally thousands did march in the campaign for peace he led. In 1968, the people found McCarthy.
As President John Kennedy said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” McCarthy effectively ended his own Senate career to make peaceful revolution possible and to end a war he deemed morally indefensible.
For that, it should be said of McCarthy what he said of Stevenson: “Do not leave this prophet with honor in his own party.”
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.