Saturday, January 10, 2009

From the b/w archives:

Gene McCarthy's last hurrah

In early 1972, only a few months before burglars broke into Watergate, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota came to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to drum up student support in his bid to win the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary. The Wisconsin contest was critical for McCarthy; his campaign was not keeping up well with George McGovern, the South Dakota senator who had announced his candidacy the previous year and already was regarded as the front-runner.

McCarthy had established his legacy in presidential politics four years earlier in the 1968 primary: His anti-war campaign and pledge to wage clean politics picked up such steam and popularity early on that he finished a surprisingly strong second to the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, in the hard-fought New Hampshire primary. It was enough to persuade LBJ that he didn't want to stay in the race anymore, and at the end of March, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing he would not seek a second term. But McCarthy's steamroll was short-lived; he soon was overtaken by the rocketing campaign of New York Sen. Robert Kennedy, and when RFK was assassinated after winning the California primary in early June, Vice President Hubert Humphrey stepped in to snag the nomination at a rancorous, violence-marred convention in Chicago.

McCarthy's 1972 campaign never picked up the steam or notoriety it had attained in '68. Still, when he came to UW-Eau Claire that winter, his was a big enough name to justify a decision I made to take my school-issued Yashica-D camera and attend his news conference to get pictures for a class "news story" assignment. I gave my instructor a contact sheet (below) showing the frames from nine pictures I took (including one in which I held the camera over my head and aimed blindly down into the crowd in front of me, trying to get a better angle; it's the one that you see upside-down). My instructor selected and marked two that he wanted me to print -- one from the news conference (above left), the other of McCarthy talking to one student while another waited at the candidate's side, standing front and square toward my camera.

On April 4, 1972, McGovern won the Wisconsin primary, finishing narrowly ahead of perennial candidate George Wallace of Alabama. Finishing third and fourth were former Vice President Humphrey and Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. McCarthy was so far behind those four that he called a wrap to his campaign. McCarthy would try again for the presidency-- as an independent candidate -- in 1976, but he spent almost as much time battling laws that made it difficult or impossible for independent candidates to get their names on the ballot as he did trying to draw attention to the issues. Nevertheless, he did manage to get his name on the ballot in 30 states.

Eugene "Clean Gene" McCarthy was 89 when he died of complications from Parkinson's disease on Dec. 10, 2005.

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