MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — One of Minnesota’s political giants was born 100 years ago Tuesday. He’s a man who made a major impact on the national scene and the nation’s social conscience during the turbulent 1960s.
Eugene McCarthy was born March 29, 1916 in Watkins, graduated from Saint John’s University and received his masters at the University of Minnesota before his 22-year political career in Washington. He was a member of the U.S. House for 11 years until winning a seat in the Senate in 1959, leaving the upper chamber in 1971.
It was in 1968 when McCarthy made a major impact on the nation during an improbable run for president. It began when McCarthy became the first announced candiate to challenge President Johnson for the Democratic nomination. McCarthy’s opposition to the Viet Nam war led to early success in the primaries and was considered a factor in Johnson dropping out of the race.
“His campaign proved that active democracy works,” said St. Paul resident Ron Hahn, who makes his directorial debut with a documentary on McCarthy that debuted on YouTube. “If you have the right issue, the right candidate, and the right number of people who are willing to rise up and get behind an issue, get behind a candidate, they can bring about change within the system.”
Hahn worked at WCCO radio when met McCarthy in the early 1990s, and pitched the idea of a documentary. He said McCarthy recommended focusing on that 1968 campaign, which Hahn said the former senator told him had become lost in history because there was so much turmoil in the US at the time.
“It got young people involved, it got women involved, and many other who hadn’t gotten actively involved in the political process. They literally got ‘Clean for Gene’ and campaigned for him,” said Hahn, referring the an early campaign slogan that urged long-haired youngsters to look their best when knocking on doors.
There have been some comparisons between McCarthy’s effort and the campaign of Bernie Sanders because of the involvement of so many young voters.
Hahn started serious work on the documentary until last summer.
“I figured in an election year, it’s particularly important to tell the story,” he said, adding that McCarthy was not a typical political candidate.
“He wasn’t outwardly gregarious, he was an intellectual, a poet, some would say a bit snobbish, stand-offish. But because he was the first to take a stand against the war, as an announced candidate against Lyndon Johnson, he was able to build this following,” Hahn said. “He challenged a sitting president of his own party on the issue of the war, and essentially forced Johnson to withdraw.”
After Johnson decided not to run, another Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey, entered the race and ultimately won the Democratic nomination before losing the general election to Richard Nixon.
“We’ve become so cynical about politics, but we do have a great democracy here and there are times, believe it or now, when it actually works in somewhat of a clean way,” Hahn said.
Hahn’s half-hour documentary, “Hi Gene… Meet the Real Gene McCarthy,” debuted on YouTube Tuesday, and he’s working on expanding it to an hour. McCarthy had four other unsuccessful runs for president, and died at the age of 89 in 2005.
Info on the documentary:
March 29, 2016 is the centennial of the birth of former Minnesota U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy.
To commemorate the occasion, “Hi, Gene. Meet The Real Senator McCarthy,” a new documentary film about McCarthy’s improbable and historic 1968 presidential campaign, will be released and available free online on March 29 and can be viewed here. The film is the directorial debut for St. Paul businessman Rob Hahn, who began the project in 1993 before revisiting it last year.
“McCarthy’s huge role in the 1968 campaign has largely been overlooked by historians,” Hahn said. “It’s my goal to tell that story and make it available to schools and the general public.
“Some pundits have compared Bernie Sanders’ campaign to McCarthy’s 1968 run,” Hahn added. “Not even close. The impact of McCarthy’s campaign was much more poignant.”
The film features interviews with Sen. McCarthy (who passed away in 2005), former ABC newsman Sam Donaldson, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (RFK’s daughter), among others. Minnesotans Vance Opperman, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan and Fr. John Malone are also included in the film.