and the Transformation of American Politics (2017)
LBJ had become the Master of the Senate by the time McCarthy was sworn in mostly due to his relentless deal-making. That being said, the new liberal Democrats (including McCarthy) that entered the Senate in 1958 were far more interested in social justice than compromise. But more than any other liberal Democrat, McCarthy helped LBJ gain more control and power in the Senate, It bears mentioning that LBJ’s job as Senate Majority Leader in the mid-to-late-1950s was so much easier than starting in the early-1970s, in that LBJ was piloting a single-engine aircraft in perfect weather compared to flying a jumbo jet low on fuel in a hurricane like today’s Senate leaders.
LBJ surprised his fellow Senators by giving freshman Senator Eugene McCarthy a seat on the Senate Finance Committee; LBJ was trying to get as many liberal Democrats as possible in his corner by doling out prestigious committee assignments. LBJ now believed that McCarthy was deeply in his debt, which became even deeper when LBJ had McCarthy chair a committee to explore unemployment during a recession in order to propose a better plan than the Republicans.
After JFK’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon in 1960, McCarthy’s career in the Senate started to lose momentum, since LBJ was Vice-President and McCarthy no longer had LBJ’s influence and protection, and to make matters worse, McCarthy wasn’t in the “Circle of Trust” in the Kennedy White House. McCarthy did so little work as a Senator during JFK’s Presidency that staffers for Senator Hubert Humphrey (MN) called him “Sleepy Hollow”, and fellow Senators could no longer count on McCarthy for a vote. McCarthy started to miss committee hearings and was often out of Washington, D.C. earning money speaking on the liberal lecture circuit. As a result, by early-1964, the likelihood for McCarthy’s re-election as Senator was no longer certain, and it appeared that McCarthy didn’t care whether-or-not he was re-elected.
McCarthy did and said everything that LBJ wanted to hear; despite being sick of LBJ’s mind games, McCarthy believed he had a legitimate chance of being Vice-President. But at the last moment during the end of the convention, McCarthy sent a telegram to LBJ withdrawing his name as VP, and McCarthy’s wife (Abigail), made sure the press knew that McCarthy had withdrawn. LBJ went into one of his trademark towering rages with his staffers since he believed that McCarthy had stolen all of his drama from the convention; McCarthy had made the choice for VP for LBJ. For those that would be surprised that McCarthy challenged LBJ in the New Hampshire primary in 1968, they certainly weren’t paying attention to what McCarthy did in Atlantic City in 1964.
McCarthy felt that he had been stabbed in the back by his two mentors, President Johnson and Senator Humphrey. LBJ insisted that McCarthy deliver the nomination speech for Vice-President at the convention for Humphrey, and McCarthy did so, but without any of the passion that he had shown for Stevenson. After LBJ’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater (AZ) in 1964, it appeared that LBJ and Humphrey were unbeatable as 1968 approached, and conventional wisdom held that no Democrat would seriously consider a run for President until 1972.
By that point however, serious questions had been raised as to what really did-or-did-not occur in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. LBJ had kept from the public that the U.S.S. Maddox was electronically eavesdropping in North Vietnamese territorial waters in order to assist South Vietnamese forces. On 4 August 1964, Daniel Ellsberg’s first day on the job in the Pentagon, reports came in that US ships (including the USS Maddox) were under fire. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was out of the building, so Ellsberg had to keep track of what was going on and write up a narrative summary for McNamara. Then, a report from the USS Maddox arrived stating that what had been previously reported in terms of North Vietnamese torpedo attacks on radar were false; weather conditions had created the chaos on the radar monitors. At most, only one North Vietnamese torpedo had been fired, and no US ships had been hit; LBJ and the Pentagon chose to escalate a minor skirmish into something more.
Katzenbach continued by stating that only the President could react swiftly, decisively, and properly in emergency situations (e.g. nuclear attacks), and that declarations of war by Congress were no longer relevant to modern warfare. Katzenbach did say that Congress had the right to check the Executive Branch during war, but in terms of Vietnam, that ship had already sailed in that the Senate had been given a chance to check LBJ in 1964 (The Senate had voted 88 - 2 in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), and they wouldn’t get another chance.
The intent of the Senate with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was to give LBJ limited power to wage war in Vietnam, but that wasn’t what occurred, in that by 1967 LBJ’s power to conduct the war in Vietnam was basically unlimited, which upset McCarthy to no end. McCarthy at that point realized that LBJ had created a trap and the Senate had jumped into that trap with both feet, including him; to McCarthy, that trap represented tyrannical behavior.
McCarthy did a rather un-McCarthy-like thing and walked out of the hearing; the normally reserved Junior Senator from the state of Minnesota was clearly agitated, and he decided that if necessary, he would take on LBJ in the Democratic primaries. McCarthy viewed that drastic strategy as the only way to challenge, and perhaps change, LBJ’s policies in Vietnam. 17 August 1967 changed Democratic Party politics forever, in that it changed the Presidential campaign of 1968, the primary system, while also changing the course of the Vietnam War and US History.
A “Dump Johnson” movement in the Democratic Party due to Vietnam was silently gaining momentum in the liberal wing of the party in 1967. The “Dump Johnson” Democrats wanted Senator Robert Kennedy (NY) to challenge LBJ, but RFK wasn’t interested in running since he viewed LBJ as unbeatable in 1968 (RFK didn’t want to be the first Kennedy to lose an election). LBJ’s policies in Vietnam still appeared popular with most of the public, and any challenge to LBJ would make the candidate look like an appeaser to Communism, and his political career would be destroyed.
McCarthy was a serious politician, and he knew that precedents (or lack thereof) ruled politics. McCarthy owed much to LBJ in terms of his career as a Senator, and until recently, McCarthy had supported LBJ on Vietnam, vocally so. It seemed pure folly to run against a President that was largely responsible for his current standing as a leader in the Senate, but as Abigail well knew, mercurial decision-making and unpredictability was part of McCarthy’s personality.
McCarthy had the habit of making significant decisions without consulting Abigail, like running for Congress in 1948. Humphrey was McCarthy’s mentor/sponsor in Minnesota politics, and he encouraged McCarthy to run. McCarthy believed that focusing on poverty was the key to reducing/eliminating Communist subversion in America; it was the only way for McCarthy to advance social justice while also taking a tough stand against Communism. McCarthy won the Democratic primary in 1948 by the narrowest of margins, and then clobbered the Republican candidate in the election; 20 years later, McCarthy again made the impetuous decision to “run again” . . .