Former Minnesota Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, whose insurgent campaign toppled a sitting president in 1968 and forced the Democratic Party to take seriously his message against the Vietnam War, died Saturday. He was 89.
McCarthy died in his sleep at the retirement home in the Georgetown neighborhood where he had lived for the past few years, said his son, Michael.
Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination during growing debate over the Vietnam War.
The challenge led to Johnson's withdrawal from the race.
The former college professor, who ran for president five times in all, was in some ways an atypical politician, a man with a witty, erudite speaking style who wrote poetry in his spare time and was the author of several books.
"He was thoughtful and he was principled and he was compassionate and he had a good sense of humor," his son said.
When Eugene McCarthy ran for president in 1992, he explained his decision to leave the seclusion of his home in rural Woodville, Va., for the campaign trail by quoting Plutarch, the ancient Greek historian: "They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage or military campaign, something to be done with some particular end in view."
McCarthy got less than 1 percent of the vote in 1992 in New Hampshire, the state where he helped change history 24 years earlier.
Helped by his legion of idealistic young volunteers known as "clean-for-Gene kids," McCarthy got 42 percent of the vote in the state's 1968 Democratic primary.
That showing embarrassed Johnson into withdrawing from the race and throwing his support to his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey.
Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York also decided to seek the nomination, but was assassinated in June 1968.
McCarthy and his followers went to the party convention in Chicago, where fellow Minnesotan Humphrey won the nomination amid bitter strife both on the convention floor and in the streets.
Humphrey went on to narrowly lose the general election to Richard Nixon.
The racial, social and political tensions within the Democratic Party in 1968 have continued to affect presidential politics ever since.
"It was a tragic year for the Democratic Party and for responsible politics, in a way," McCarthy said in a 1988 interview. "There were already forces at work that might have torn the party apart anyway — the growing women's movement, the growing demands for greater racial equality, an inability to incorporate all the demands of a new generation.
"But in 1968, the party became a kind of unrelated bloc of factions ... each refusing accommodation with another, each wanting control at the expense of all the others."