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The baffling Gene McCarthy

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 By the end of the month, LBJ had withdrawn from politics.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."

I once asked Hubert Humphrey, who had known him for decades, to describe McCarthy. ''Oh, Gene is witty, handsome, an Irish poet," the vice president said, ''and a clever politician, all the more clever for denying it." Bobby Kennedy even doubted the Irishness. Fixing me with his blue eyes, he earnestly told me, ''Gene's not all Irish, you know." ''You're kidding, Senator," I protested. ''You sound like a guy from South Boston smearing an opponent who might be Lithuanian or Canadian." ''I'm serious," RFK said. ''Gene's mother was German. That's why he's so mean." ''What's your excuse?" I asked. Kennedy blushed with embarrassment.

In early 1968, after RFK chose not to run, he saw college students flock to McCarthy's antiwar campaign. Kennedy's reaction, Mary McGrory wrote, evoked ''a Victorian whose daughter has run off with the dustman." The feud, which echoes today, split the Democratic left. ''Why are liberals different from cannibals?" Lyndon Johnson used to ask. ''Cannibals eat only their enemies."

After 1968, McCarthy ran repeatedly for president, emulating his fellow Minnesotan, Harold Stassen. In the precision of the cliché, it was a quixotic path. ''I like New Hampshire," he used to say.

Among American poets, he liked Robert Frost but disdained James Whitcomb Riley. During the 1968 Indiana primary, he said of the Hoosier bard with amazement, ''They actually call him The Poet, not a poet, but The Poet."

In September the Minnesota-born author and journalist Al Eisele invited me to visit with McCarthy in Georgetown. His voice was weak, but his smile was still wicked and his handshake steady. By his chair was The Washington Post sports section and a volume of William Butler Yeats.

In 1968, after losing the Indiana and Nebraska primaries, McCarthy was campaigning in California, talking to college students in Fresno. His old friend Orville Freeman, a member of LBJ's cabinet, had attacked him as irrelevant. ''The secretary of agriculture has said we will be 'only a footnote in history,' " McCarthy said. ''But I think we can say with Churchill, 'What a footnote.' And I think it could well be that we will become part of the main text."

When McCarthy announced for president, the number of US combat dead was 15,858. At the end of the war, the number was more than 58,000. He never called himself a prophet but seemed more like a character in one of his poems, ''The Smuggler Speaks."

I am not a salesmanI am not a manufacturer's agentI am not a priest of God. . . .The Hapsburgs were against bordersSo am I.I am a poet.

Martin F. Nolan is a former Washington correspondent for the Globe.

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