I love you so. ... Gone? Who will swear you wouldn't have done good to the country, that fulfillment wouldn't have done good to you.
- Robert Lowell, "For Eugene McCarthy'' (July 1968)
WASHINGTON -- By August 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy was gone and his supporters were left to wonder how -- whether -- his fulfillment was connected to doing good to the country. When the Democratic convention nominated another Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey -- who in 1964 won the vice presidential nomination McCarthy had craved -- McCarthy went to the south of France, then covered the World Series for Life magazine. Had he campaigned for Humphrey, who narrowly lost, there probably would have been no Nixon presidency.
McCarthy died last Saturday in his 90th year, in this city which he sometimes seemed to include in his capacious disdain but which, for a while, he leavened with a distinctive sensibility. In 1980 he endorsed Ronald Reagan, reasoning that Reagan could not be worse than Jimmy Carter. But even in 1968 he had a sometimes ill-disguised disdain for many who flocked to his diffidently unfurled banner.
Disgusted by Vietnam policy, he laconically announced himself "willing" to be an "adequate" president, and went to New Hampshire to unseat his party's president. McCarthy got 41.9 percent of the vote. Johnson got 49.6 percent -- all write-ins; his name was not on the ballot -- and three weeks later withdrew from the race.
McCarthy's 1968 achievement elevated New Hampshire's primary to the status it has subsequently enjoyed. His death occurred the day the Democratic Party gingerly suggested modifying its primary schedule in a way that might diminish New Hampshire's potency.
The sacramental status of Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary as the first two nominating events testifies to the power of the mere passage of time to sanctify the accidental, even the unreasonable. Now the Democratic Party suggests allowing one or two states to hold caucuses -- not primaries -- between Iowa and New Hampshire.