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Mark Shields: Bernie Sanders, Eugene McCarthy and a Few Historic Parallels

On Nov. 30, 1967, I stood in the caucus room of what is now called the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill and heard Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota announce that he would indeed challenge the renomination of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. His issue was the U.S. war in Vietnam.

“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,” he said, and he supported “an honorable, rational and political solution” to the war.

To McCarthy’s underdog, long-shot cause came thousands of young people who volunteered in New Hampshire and Wisconsin and were willing to shave their beards and cut their shoulder-length hair — to be “clean for Gene.”

On March 12, 1968, McCarthy shocked the political world by winning 42 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote to LBJ’s 49 percent.

Four days later, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, himself an opponent of the Vietnam War (and for whom I proudly worked in that campaign), entered the presidential race, and 15 days later, Johnson announced that he would not seek renomination.

McCarthy, even his severest critics acknowledged, was a man of the mind. He rationed praise, and his wit was often cutting. He generally inspired more admiration than affection.

But make no mistake about it: Eugene McCarthy was a man whose courage would change American history and the way Americans nominate their presidents.

The parallels to 2016 and to Democratic challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are unambiguous. The long-shot underdog, whose candidacy was immediately written off by all the wiseguys and the smart money — his cause income inequality and an indictment of a system rigged to further benefit the already rich and powerful — was a definite political loser. He’s a candidate who can inspire thousands of mostly younger people to dedicate their time, talents and energy, along with their small bills and loose change.

Sanders has moved the public debate and the Democratic Party, as well as the party’s all-but-certain nominee, to the populist left in backing a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, encouraging tougher policing of Wall Street, withering criticism of free-trade agreements and opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

But in 1968, after Vice President Hubert Humphrey — who, for fear of losing, had deliberately avoided competing in any state primaries against either McCarthy or (before he was assassinated June 4) Kennedy — was nominated at the tumultuous and bloody Chicago convention, McCarthy did not immediately support his fellow Minnesotan against the Republican ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

Humphrey, after distancing himself from Johnson on Vietnam in a nationally televised Sept. 30 speech, came from 15 points behind to close the gap.

Still, McCarthy, who had such special standing with anti-war voters, would not publicly support Humphrey until six days before the election, which the Democrat lost nationally by just 511,000 votes.

Would McCarthy’s all-out endorsement have made the difference? Probably. The race was that close.

America almost certainly would have been spared seven more years of war and 22,767 American deaths in Vietnam.

The nation would not have endured the hemorrhaging of national confidence and trust inflicted by the criminality of Watergate and the forced resignations of the president and vice president to escape prison time for their criminal offenses.

The betting here is that Sanders, unlike McCarthy, will meet the fall challenge in 2016 and that Sanders will go all out to energize those millions who “feel the Bern” to join the Democratic effort. History may well hang in the balance.

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, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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