Listening to the latest campaign analysis, a poignant old memory recently surprised me with its presence after nearly fifty years. The event in question involved yet another presidential hopeful, from a wholly different time.
The decade of the 1960’s was building towards its tumultuous climax, with increasing citizen protests against the Vietnam War, sit-ins on college campuses and other disruptions of government and corporate operations becoming a feature of daily life. The early nonviolence of the civil rights movement had yielded to urban riots two years earlier. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be murdered a year later. The backdrop to the 1968 election was one of growing civic unrest and fear of an impending convulsion of the body politic.
National political figures had cautiously begun to voice their opposition to the Administration’s policy in Southeast Asia. One of the earliest and most intrepid voices was that of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who would join the race in November 1967. His anti-Vietnam stand gladdened the hearts and raised the hopes of the American people. The first two primary contests, in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, revealed significant support for his candidacy and fueled belief in him as a viable choice for the Democratic nomination.
In early 1968, my wife and I, along with a family friend, attended a performance of the touring Broadway musical, “Man of La Mancha” at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. In the middle of the performance the orchestra suddenly stopped playing, the house lights came up, and a single spotlight fanned the theater, coming to rest on a loge seat and its occupant. The audience all stood, seeking the reason for this interruption and then the shouts rang out, “It’s Senator McCarthy!” The applause was pro- longed, and when it finally stopped, the orchestra resumed. Broadway leg- end Richard Kiley, in the title role, advanced to center stage right, and with the spotlight still trained on Senator McCarthy, began singing the musical’s show stopping lead song, “The Impossible Dream.” Excerpts from the lyrics attest to the spirit of the occasion in recognizing the courage of this bold challenger.
“This is my quest. To follow that star. No matter how hopeless. No matter how far. To fight for the right. Without question or pause. To be willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause.”
Like Don Quixote, who at the end of the play finds himself vanquished and must at last lay down his arms, so too did McCarthy eventually succumb to the superior organization of the Democratic Establishment candidate, Hubert Humphrey and, despite winning a plurality of the popular vote during the Democratic primaries, ended his campaign. Although his candidacy is perhaps remembered by some today as merely a romantic implausibility, I can recall that, at least on one special night, it seemed Eugene McCarthy just might reach that unreachable star.