By Martin F. Nolan for the Boston Globe:
An early snowfall covered Washington on Nov. 30, 1967. In the Senate caucus room, Senator Eugene J. McCarthy stood up, took a risk, and changed American politics forever. He announced his intention to run against President Lyndon B. Johnson in Democratic primaries. ''The administration seems to have set no limits on the price that it will pay for military victory," the Minnesota senator said in a short statement. ''I am hopeful that a challenge may alleviate the sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the process of American politics."
''Don't you believe we should stop communism?" a reporter asked. ''Yes, I do," McCarthy replied, ''And South Vietnam is the worst possible place to try."
McCarthy, who died Saturday at 89 in Washington, outlived all the political giants of that tumultuous year of 1968. He fascinated Republicans Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Romney. He infuriated Democrats Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Robert Kennedy.
On March 12, 1968, voters in New Hampshire gave McCarthy 42 percent of the vote in the Democratic presidential primary against Johnson's 49 percent. By the end of the month, LBJ had withdrawn from politics. In that year's primaries, Kennedy and McCarthy won almost 70 percent of the popular voter. Humphrey won only 2 percent, but was nominated at the Chicago convention. That would never happen again because McCarthy fumigated the smoke-filled rooms and evicted the bosses.
He could be ambitious and diffident, mystical and malicious. Gene McCarthy baffled everybody. ''Why does a man pursue the job, a grueling job, of the presidency? . . . Why does somebody want that?" Johnny Carson asked him on NBC's ''Tonight Show." McCarthy answered: ''I have never said that I wanted it, really. I have gone so far as to say that I would be willing to take it."