Eugene McCarthy, R.I.P

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The honorific "American original" is much abused, but few deserve it more than Eugene McCarthy, who died Dec. 10 at the age of 89.

America remembers Mr. McCarthy as the man who challenged President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary in the 1968, ending the Johnson presidency by winning little more than 40 percent of the vote. LBJ won less than a majority, too. Mr. McCarthy became the candidate of choice for the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But he was much more than that. Gene McCarthy was an independent thinker and a man of conscience who, relishing the role of gadfly, injected honesty into the political debate. (He was also, as he would be pleased to have pointed out, a pretty fair first baseman in his youth.)

No one was ever fully satisfied with Mr. McCarthy, and to good effect: He was a disappointment to leftists for refusing to indulge antipathy to American interests and sympathy for enemies of America. He irritated conservatives over the years, too, though his courage in the face of the vindictive LBJ was much admired, and the irritation all but vanished in the later years. A biographer described him as "a skeptic about reform, about do-gooders, about the power of the state and the competence of government, and about the liberal reliance upon material cures for social problems." He endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980 because, he said, anyone was better than Jimmy Carter. For his criticism of campaign-finance reform, the Conservative Political Action Conference gave him an award in 2000. …