Coming only two weeks following Robert F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination after narrowly winning the California primary on June 4, McCarthy at first refused to actively campaign in the New York primary.
As in other states, McCarthy’s campaign in the Empire State was a highly decentralized effort led, on one hand, by the left-leaning Coalition for a Democratic Alternative and by a more moderate group called “Citizens for McCarthy” on the other.
The Coalition for a Democratic Alternative was headed by Sarah Kovner, a former Democratic state committeewoman, Eleanor Clark French, the feisty millionaire sister of Pennsylvania Senator Joseph Clark, and by Harold Ickes, Jr., son of FDR’s irascible Secretary of the Interior.
New York’s hideously complex primary system did not provide for a preferential primary on June 18. Instead, Democratic primary voters simply elected delegates to the party’s national convention. Complicating the process, voters were asked to select three delegates from each of the state’s forty-one congressional districts, but the ballot didn’t list the presidential candidate to whom the delegates were pledged — in other words, McCarthy’s name didn’t appear anywhere on the ballot in New York state.
To overcome these obstacles, the McCarthy campaign tailored literature identifying delegates pledged to the Minnesota senator in each congressional district. Hundreds of thousands of brochures and fliers identifying McCarthy’s delegates were distributed throughout the state.
McCarthy’s initial reluctance to actively campaign in New York in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination angered and disappointed some of his supporters. “McCarthy didn’t throw cold water on the New York primary,” recalled a caustic Ickes, “he pissed on it.”
McCarthy, however, eventually agreed to make some appearances in the state. From McCarthy’s perspective — a point obviously lost on some of his more ardent supporters in New York — it was difficult campaigning in a state where he had no opponent and where once-bustling Kennedy storefront headquarters now, sadly, displayed “For Rent” signs. It was a haunting image.
Walking numbly through a set of appearances in the Empire state while surrounded by a phalanx of Secret Service agents, McCarthy was even more low-key than usual. Only once, during an ad-libbed plea for peace in Vietnam, did McCarthy speak with any real passion. “I think the time has come,” he said, “when we must say we shall take our steel out of the land of thatched huts.”
Deprived first of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who withdrew from the race on March 31, and now Kennedy, the senior senator from Minnesota couldn’t seem to make any headway no matter how hard he ran.
“It’s as if someone gave you the football and you’re running with it,” lamented McCarthy, “but the field never ends. There’s no goal line. No opponent. You just run. And every time you reach a marker on the field it’s always the 50-year line.”
McCarthy’s melancholy mood was obvious to everyone. “I feel like the Black Knight out in the center of the field,” he told Life magazine’s Shana Alexander. “I turn my horse round and round, but there is no one to fight. I go to their tents to strike their shields with my lance, but not even a shield hangs there now. Only flapping rags.”
While many journalists and pundits, still overcome with grief, suggested that Kennedy would have easily carried his adopted state if he had survived, the evidence suggests otherwise. Such reasoning — and there was plenty of it — was nothing but simpering sentimentality. Dating back to McCarthy’s address at the 1960 Democratic convention, supporters of the late Adlai Stevenson in New York — and there were legions of them — had their eyes on the up-and-coming young Minnesotan.
“Gene McCarthy is an Adlai Stevenson with sex appeal,” observed one Democratic leader. McCarthy, it turned out, had been making serious inroads in New York long before Sirhan Sirhan opened fire on that fateful night in Los Angeles. The tragic events of June 4th notwithstanding, New York was an upset in the making — a state poised for a McCarthy victory. Many observers believed that a strong McCarthy showing on his home turf — Bobby had been elected to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1964 — would have seriously damaged Kennedy’s bid for the nomination.
From the outset, McCarthy’s volunteers in the Empire State waged a vigorous campaign, collecting more than 150,000 signatures on behalf of his delegates and opening more than two hundred storefront headquarters throughout the state.
On Election Day, McCarthy captured 62 delegates, compared to thirty for the slain Kennedy and a dozen for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who didn’t carry a single primary that year and whose “politics-of-joy” candidacy now seemed painfully inappropriate. Nineteen uncommitted delegates were also elected in the primary.
Moreover, Paul O’Dwyer, a white-haired liberal and staunch McCarthy supporter, was an upset winner in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, defeating Kennedy protégé Eugene Nickerson and millionaire U.S. Rep. Joseph Y. Resnick of Ellenville.
The 52-year-old O’Dwyer was a co-founder of the Coalition for a Democratic Alternative, the grassroots organization formed in 1967 to oppose Johnson’s re-nomination.
A Manhattan councilman-at-large and younger brother of the late New York Mayor William O’Dwyer — they were raised in a large Catholic family of eleven children — the younger O’Dwyer garnered a surprising 275,877 votes, or 36 percent, against the favored Nickerson, who polled 257,639, or 34 percent. Resnick, a hawkish congressman and staunch supporter of the Johnson administration, finished third with 229,803 votes.
McCarthy, commenting on his otherwise joyless victory in the state’s low-key and somber presidential primary — a race that should have included a buoyant and surging RFK — said that O’Dwyer’s stunning upset in the Senate race would make it “very difficult for party leaders in New York to read the results and not tremble.”
Despite McCarthy’s strong showing in the primary, on June 28 the New York State Democratic Committee, arrogantly ignoring the will of the people, awarded McCarthy only 15 1/2 of the remaining 65 delegates at-large.
Adding insult to injury, more than half of the delegates given to the peace candidate by the state committee in 1968 were completely unknown to the McCarthy campaign, including five of the six “McCarthy” delegates from Nassau County, all of whom had actively opposed the Minnesotan in the primary.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the state’s at-large delegates, mostly party hacks, were awarded to Humphrey, prompting the colorful Eleanor Clark French, a former vice chairman of the Democratic State Committee, to say that this day “will go down in the history of Democratic state politics as a day of perfidy!”
It was a travesty, repeated in state after state that year.
In Pennsylvania, for example, McCarthy was awarded only 19 of the state’s 130 delegates after winning nearly 72% of the popular vote in the April 23 primary.
The brutal and unfair treatment afforded McCarthy that summer was not unlike Democratic officials in Arkansas and Louisiana this year in denying Chattanooga attorney John Wolfe his rightful share of delegates after winning 3 delegates in the Louisiana primary on March 24th and polling an eye-opening 42% of the vote against Obama in Arkansas on May 22 — a showing that should have entitled him to at least nineteen delegates.
Wolfe, running as an Occupy Wall Street-inspired populist, ended up empty-handed, completely shut out in Charlotte.
As Mr. Wolfe can surely attest, the Democratic Party learned a lot in defending the “Madonna of the Napalm” in 1968, quickly discarding the substantive McGovern-Fraser reforms of the early 1970s and perfecting them to the point that they can now suppress any and all internal opposition.
By stifling dissent, today’s Democratic establishment, like those in 1968, have assured the unanimous re-nomination of the indiscriminate drone-lobbing, chrome yet cold-hearted President — arguably the biggest White House failure on the economy since Herbert Hoover — in Charlotte later this summer.
Fair-minded, progressive-thinking Americans need a new party.