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Column: Eugene McCarthy sat on his bed, listening to us

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Dec. 17, 2005.

WORTHINGTON — I truly think we were nearer to democracy in the time of Eugene McCarthy. You heard about this: McCarthy, who represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate for a dozen years, died one week ago in his 89th year.

What I am talking about — nearer to democracy — representative democracy — does not concern McCarthy alone, but the focus is on him now.

The Senator came to Worthington as featured speaker for a rally — he drove down Highways 169 and 60. He took a double room at the Shady Lane Motel on Oxford Street. When the evening affair was over, he invited any and all to stop by the motel to see him. I was there as a reporter for the Daily Globe.

People came: women and men and a few kids. They talked with McCarthy about what concerned them, or they stopped just to shake hands. Time went by. McCarthy took off his suit coat and vest, his necktie and his shoes. He sat back, but upright, on a bed, propped up by pillows. Most took this as a sign to leave, but he insisted they stay. “No, no. I just wanted to get off my feet and get comfortable.” People continued to gather around, coming and going, passing along their thoughts.

Next morning, the senator drove to the gas station and had his car filled. He stopped at a restaurant for breakfast. Then he was on his way, north on 60 once again. He had been to Worthington. He had not got to Leota or Lismore or Ellsworth but talked with people from those towns — from many towns around. He had gathered a heap of samples of the opinions of local people. As I said: I think we were nearer to democracy in that time.

I was reading one of the long newspaper accounts about Eugene McCarthy in the Sunday papers. A writer puzzled a bit. He believed McCarthy acted at precisely the right time in raising his call for an end to the Vietnam War in 1968. The writer wondered if and how McCarthy knew the time was right — did he see polls of one kind or another that President Johnson did not know of ?

I thought: well, sure — McCarthy had insider information. He was propped on a bed in one motel room and then another motel room one night and then another night, hearing Minnesota people talk of the war. They were telling him they didn’t know why we were in the war, and they told of their sorrow for the dead young soldiers. If he said, “Well — do we want Vietnam to be Communist?” people said they didn’t care.

McCarthy was moved to launch a campaign for the White House with a promise to end the fighting.

McCarthy was a politician of his own fashioning. Well — for goodness sake, he was a poet. He had studied for a year at a Benedictine seminary. In that era, many U.S. senators were powers unto themselves. The political parties and the presidents could take only a few senators for granted. McCarthy, Democrat, challenged Lyndon Johnson, Democrat. McCarthy didn’t like what the president from his party was doing.

McCarthy had Irish origins and he reflected sometimes that he believed he had Irish luck. McCarthy was at Worthington in the early morning of Turkey Day 1960 — featured speaker at the dedication of the U.S. Army Reserve armory on Milton Avenue. The sun beamed, the sky was blue and people listened in balmy consideration.

By parade time, the sky was thick and low and grey. Endless buckets poured out as other politicians — Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Orville Freeman — attempted their Turkey Day appearances.

At the Democratic national convention of 1960, McCarthy made an eloquent, dramatic, televised speech that first earned him national attention by nominating Adlai Stevenson for a third time. He went to the Rock County Fairgrounds at Luverne for his first appearance in Minnesota after the convention.

McCarthy sat talking of that convention speech and of many things with a reporter while a crowd came together. There was time, finally, for no more than five minutes of handshaking before the call came for McCarthy to speak. Many politicians would have been out there shaking hands for an hour. Eugene McCarthy was a politician in his own mold.