Watkins native was front and center during JFK assassination
Fifty years ago when the world’s eyes were focused on the city of Dallas and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a man who grew up in tiny Watkins, Minn., found himself near the center of the tragedy.
Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s life changed dramatically after the death of Pres. Kennedy, and as it did, the people of Central Minnesota followed it closely.
The hometown boy who attended Catholic grade school, played first base on the local town team, and would go on to graduate from St. John’s University, would become a voice of calm and strength during those troubled times in November 1963, and beyond.
Just days after the Kennedy assassination, McCarthy was interviewed on ABC TV for his insight on the events.
McCarthy was described at the time as one of the most articulate members of the Senate. He was a former college professor and author of the book Frontiers of Democracy and a staunch and loyal supporter of the late president.
A visibly saddened McCarthy did his best to put the tragedy into perspective.
“At a time like this, it really doesn’t make much difference what you have been and what you expect to be, you pass a pretty harsh judgment on the reality of the moment,” McCarthy said as he folded his hands in front of him almost as if he was in prayer. “I suppose one even feels somewhat guilty of even attempting to describe what’s happened in language … because the harshness and reality of the fact itself is such that … there really isn’t much need for it really. I think everyone in the country has a very deep sense of what happened. To try and embellish it and make it more clear to people is a task that should be left to the poets and to those poets who have enough restraint not to touch it for 10, 15 or 20 years.”
McCarthy himself was a poet but at the time of the interview, his emotions were raw.
He was asked what good, if any, might come from the assassination.
“At most, one can only be hopeful. It may be an attribute of human nature to somehow accept that the death of a great man, a strong man and a man of real power – that this in itself has a kind of purifying influence upon history itself. I think it is good to believe that and hope for that, but there are some contradictions in the testimony of history that sometimes following the death of men of peace and liberty and the pursuit of justice that disorder rather than order follows.
“It would be my hope, under these circumstances, and in these times, that what appears to be an almost gratuitous sacrifice of a young man in the office of the presidency – not one who in any way offended anyone, not one who had in effect had time to prove himself – that this might have some kind of purifying and redemptive influence, not just on the United States where we are concerned about hate and suspicion and doubt and all of the forces of unreason, but it might also have an influence for good on the entire world.”
Kennedy’s assassination, in part, catapulted McCarthy into the presidential race of 1968, where he became the first candidate to challenge the incumbent President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. The unexpected vote total McCarthy received in the New Hampshire primary, and his strong polling in the upcoming Wisconsin primary, led Johnson to withdraw from the race.
McCarthy, known in the Senate as “Clean Gene,” was running for president on an anti-Vietnam War platform.
Johnson’s withdrawal from the race enticed Robert F. Kennedy, as well as fellow Minnesotan Hubert H. Humphrey into the race for president.
McCarthy would seek the presidency a total of five times. He passed away Dec. 10, 2005, at the age of 89.