and the Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism
Published by Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 2004)
This is the biography of a man born into relative poverty in rural Minnesota, who became a Benedictine novice, a Democratic senator, a champion of the anti-war movement and a serious contender for the White House in 1968.
Eugene McCarthy’s life makes for a terrific story, and when I was choosing a topic for my Cambridge PhD thesis, it struck me as bizarre that nobody had done it before. So my thesis effectively became a political biography, using McCarthy’s journey to trace the wider story of the triumph and decline of a political creed – liberalism – that had defined American life during the early Cold War.
I spent three years researching it, including months trudging miserably through the snows of Minnesota in McCarthy’s footsteps. I also did a lot of interviews, including several days with the elderly McCarthy, who was charm itself. Unfortunately, as my book pointed out, he also had more than his fair share of flaws, and he didn’t thank me for mentioning them.
When my book came out, McCarthy told a reporter that his father had allowed him three uses of the word “shit” in his lifetime. He had used one of them on Lyndon Johnson, he said, and one on Richard Nixon. He was tempted to use the other one on me – but, he decided, “I don’t want to waste it on this guy.”
I don’t know if he ever did use it; he died a year later. At one point he even threatened to sue me for libel, although he never did.
Eugene McCarthy was one of the most fascinating political figures of the postwar era: a committed liberal anti-Communist who broke with his party’s leadership over Vietnam and ultimately helped take down the political giant Lyndon B. Johnson. His presidential candidacy in 1968 seized the hearts and fired the imaginations of countless young liberals; it also presaged the declining fortunes of liberalism and the rise of conservatism over the past three decades.
Dominic Sandbrook traces Eugene McCarthy’s rise to prominence and his subsequent failures, and makes clear how his story embodies the larger history of American liberalism over the last half century. We see McCarthy elected from Minnesota to the House and then to the Senate, part of a new liberal movement that combined New Deal domestic policies and fierce Cold War hawkishness, a consensus that produced huge electoral victories until it was shattered by the war in Vietnam.
As the situation in Vietnam escalated, many liberals, like McCarthy, found themselves increasingly estranged from the anti-Communism that they had supported for nearly two decades. Sandbrook recounts McCarthy’s growing opposition to President Johnson and his policies, which culminated in McCarthy’s stunning near-victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary and Johnson’s subsequent withdrawal from the race. McCarthy went on to lose the nomination to Hubert Humphrey at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which secured his downfall and led to Richard Nixon’s election, but he had pulled off one of the greatest electoral upsets in American history, one that helped shape the political landscape for decades.
These were tumultuous times in American politics, and Sandbrook vividly captures the drama and historical significance of the period through his intimate portrait of a singularly interesting man at the center of it all.
“Distinguished by extensive research … Intelligent and well written … The analysis is learned and sharp.” New Yorker
“McCarthy has lacked a full-scale biography; now, thanks to a young British historian, Dominic Sandbrook, he has a very good one … Sandbrook brings both McCarthy and American liberalism alive … A stunning achievement.” History Book Club Review (Editors’ choice)
“Sandbrook has undertaken – and accomplished with style and distinction – a daunting and rewarding study, one that tracks the rise and fall of liberalism in the postwar years.” Boston Globe
“A thoughtful, crisply written and often fascinating political biography … A combination of sympathy and fairness and unvarnished criticism.” San Francisco Chronicle
“This admirable biography places McCarthy’s career in the broader context of post-World War II America … Sandbrook effectively grapples with his complex, sometimes enigmatic subject.” Chicago Tribune
“A thoroughly researched, intelligent biography.” New York Observer
“An interesting book, handsomely written, and closely researched.” The Weekly Standard
“Massively researched … Sandbrook is effective in conveying the sense of a wasted talent.” The Nation
“Dominic Sandbrook’s subtle, intelligent portrait gives us Gene McCarthy in all his enigmatic brilliance … At a time when so much political history comes to us as scandal and gossip, this absorbing book reminds us where the drama of politics really begins – in the tensions between idealism and compromise, intellect and passion, knowledge and delusion.” Sam Tanenhaus
“Highly readable … Captures all of the drama and historical significance of both McCarthy the man and the political era that he helped define.” Tucson Citizen
“A consummate political biography. Dominic Sandbrook insightfully probes Eugene McCarthy’s complex role in the decy of American liberalism. Avoiding nostalgia, he writes with an incisive and compelling honesty … A sobering story in vivid prose, rich in nuance.” Alan Taylor
“Sandbrook’s biography will command attention and spark discussion about this controversial career and McCarthy’s role in the end of the New Deal liberal consensus.” Publishers Weekly
“Illuminating … Sandbrook is especially good at describing how McCarthy’s Catholicism formed his political vision…. Scholarly, scrupulously researched.” Library Journal
“This incisive account of the career both of postwar liberalism and of one of its most romantic standard-bearers reads like the anatomy of a lost cause – lost thanks not only to ideological choices but to the all-too-human attributes of arrogance, self-absorption and spite. An invaluable book for liberals who want to understand how they got where they are.” James Traub