New Hampshire 1968: A Primary That Really Mattered

Voters in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont may well decide on March 4 who will be the Democratic presidential nominee. But whatever the outcome, it won't come close to the historic impact of the 1968 New Hampshire primary, a catalytic event that changed the American political landscape and the way we elect our presidents.

It may seem like ancient history now, even for those of us who were there 40 years ago. But when the ballots were counted on March 12, 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota had won 42 percent of the vote, compared to 49 percent for President Lyndon Johnson. In fact, when Republican write-in votes were included, McCarthy had come within 230 votes of defeating a president of his own party.

McCarthy's candidacy, which harnessed the energy and idealism of young people all over the country -- read Barack Obama -- was dismissed by the so-called experts as a quixotic children's crusade. But his unexpectedly strong showing -- a classic example of exceeding expectations -- had an immediate and explosive effect.

It set in motion a series of events that soon forced President Johnson from office; drew Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York into the race (tragically leading to his assassination three months later); triggered violent anti-war protests that disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that fatally undermined the presidential campaign of McCarthy's fellow Minnesotan, Vice President Hubert Humphrey; put Richard Nixon in the White House; and set the stage for the eventual withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

It was the first primary I covered as a young Washington correspondent for Minnesota newspapers, but I could see that something special was happening in the snowy landscape of New Hampshire. Despite press criticism of his low-key, pedantic style and his refusal to attack Johnson, McCarthy deftly exploited a growing disenchantment with the escalating war.

McCarthy, who originally intended to bypass New Hampshire and concentrate on the Massachusetts primary a week later, didn't even go to New Hampshire until Jan. 25, just six weeks before the primary. A Gallup Poll showed he would get about 12 percent of the vote, some of it from people who confused him with the Red-baiting Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

The campaign was poorly organized and badly underfunded. The total McCarthy for President bankroll in New Hampshire was $400, $250 of which was donated by the uncle of a local organizer's wife. When McCarthy was asked how he intended to compete with Johnson's control of the party apparatus, he replied, "We'll live off the land." (When I asked him in late 1967 if he was committing political suicide by challenging Johnson, he said, "Wait until those coffins start coming home to the small towns in Minnesota and around the country, and you'll see the American people turn against this war.")

Then, in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, lightning struck for McCarthy as North Vietnamese troops launched the devastating Tet Offensive that stunned U.S. forces, shocked the American public and disproved the claims of Johnson and his military advisers that the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong were being defeated and, like the Bush administration's present claims about the war in Iraq, that we were winning. Suddenly, thousands of New Hampshire voters -- and millions of Americans -- were asking the same questions about the war that McCarthy was raising.

The Tet offensive, and reports that the Pentagon planned to send another 206,000 troops to Vietnam, sent thousands of college students who were willing to be "clean for Gene" flocking to New Hampshire. (One was a Wellesley student from Illinois named Hillary Rodham.) Aided by the goodwill they engendered with New Hampshire voters and heavy-handed tactics by Johnson supporters who questioned McCarthy's patriotism and experience - read Hillary Clinton - the campaign peaked at exactly the right time. When the polls closed, New Hampshire instantly transformed McCarthy from a hopeless underdog into a serious candidate for president.

On election night, a jubilant McCarthy paid tribute to the "New Politics" that he personified. In a midnight speech at the Sheraton Wayfarer in Bedford, N.H., he told his ecstatic supporters, "People have remarked that this campaign has brought young people back into the system. But it's the other way around. The young people have brought the country back into the system."

McCarthy, who died in 2005 at the age of 89, ran for president four more times, the last time in 1992 when he got less than one percent of the vote in the Granite State, where few people noticed, or even remembered, the man who made history by running against a war the American people had grown tired of.