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Editorial: Remembering a primary that shocked the nation

  • What was Eugene McCarthy’s New Hampshire headquarters at 5 Pleasant St. Extension in 1968 is now the Chi Cha Hookah Cigar Bar Lounge. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff


Sunday, March 11, 2018

There’s no brass plaque out front and 5 Pleasant St. Extension, currently the home of the Chi Cha Hookah Cigar Bar Lounge, and it isn’t on any walking tours of historic Concord. It should be. Fifty years ago tomorrow, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, running in the New Hampshire presidential primary as an anti-war candidate, came within seven points of defeating Lyndon Johnson, a fellow Democrat and the sitting president. What’s now a lounge was, in the winter of 1968, McCarthy’s New Hampshire headquarters.

A few weeks after the vote, disheartened by his poor performance in New Hampshire, the growing death toll from the war in Vietnam and the anti-war protests of millions of American youth, Johnson famously announced that he would “neither seek nor accept” his party’s nomination for another term. That changed the course of history, but his decision failed to end the war. Richard Nixon won the fall election, escalated the war and, it was learned last year when records were unsealed, worked to sabotage peace talks that might have ended a conflict that lasted two decades and claimed more than 58,000 American lives.

Concord attorney John Teague was a McCarthy campaign staffer and one of the managers of the Pleasant Street headquarters. Armies of college students poured into New Hampshire to canvass for McCarthy. Many in that electric era of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll “Got Clean for Gene,” shedding beards and shoulder-length hair. Tucked away in a trunk in the attic of a local senior citizen there could be a McCarthy hat, or a dress or mini-skirt emblazoned with peace signs and the candidate’s name.

Celebrities came too, including screen idol Paul Newman, who reportedly made 15 appearances here. At one rally, Teague said, a middle-aged woman was so desperate to touch Newman that she fell through a plate-glass window.

Because he was the only young person at his first meeting with McCarthy supporters, Teague became a de facto spokesman for youth, one quoted in a nationally syndicated news column. “I had to hide it from my father, who was a pretty well-known conservative Republican politician and very much pro-war at that point. My mother helped hide it,” Teague said of the column by writers Rowland Evans and Robert Novak.

Many families in the 1960s and ’70s were riven with conflict because opposition to the war was considered unpatriotic or worse. A big vote in New Hampshire for McCarthy would be “greeted with cheers in Hanoi,” said Democratic governor John King, a Johnson supporter.

New Hampshire Sen. Tom McIntyre, a fellow Democrat, accused McCarthy of supporting draft dodgers. McCarthy’s reply resonates today. The president’s complaints, said McCarthy, an Army intelligence officer in World War II, “consisted of a single, shrill, irrelevant and false note – the implication that the opposition to the president’s policies is somehow disloyal.”

The Monitor gave McCarthy’s campaign little coverage that winter, though on Jan. 27, 1968, it ran a big front page photo of the candidate smiling after filing his nomination papers at the State House. Far more ink was devoted to Republican primary challenger George Romney, and to Nixon and his daughter Julie and husband David. News from the war front made the front page almost daily. On Feb. 2, the famous photo of South Vietnamese Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan using his pistol to publicly execute a Viet Cong officer ran on page 10.

1968 was a bad year for America. A few weeks after McCarthy’s close second in New Hampshire and Johnson’s withdrawal, Robert Kennedy entered the race. On April 4, the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. On June 5, Bobby Kennedy was shot by an assassin at a rally and died the next day. Riots swept American cities and left them on fire. McCarthy’s campaign, upstaged by Kennedy, faded. McCarthy left the Senate in 1971 and, though he ran for president quixotically four more times, he had his best showing in New Hampshire exactly a half-century ago.