Enter Clean Gene …
The hopes of the antiwar movement turned temporarily to the reticent senator from Minnesota. Having said little more than that he opposed the war in Vietnam, Eugene McCarthy took 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary on March 12 against a President from his own party.
McCarthy’s scruffier young volunteers had agreed to shave and keep “Clean for Gene” to help him make the case against Lyndon Johnson’s war. McCarthy, who had published spare, declarative poems (“Now, far-sighted I see the distant/danger/beyond the coffin confines of/telephone booths”), came across as muted and bookish on the stump, more like a professor secure in his tenure than a man hungry for the Presidency. “I am prepared to be your candidate,” he red-bloodedly declared in his announcement.
“He’s all we’ve got,” more than one of his student volunteers confessed to reporters. On January 20 Robert Kennedy had said again, “I would not oppose Lyndon Johnson under any foreseeable circumstances.” McCarthy, the argument went, at least had dared to challenge the President. In early January he showed just 12 percent support in the polls, against the roughed-up President’s 39 percent. Opposition to the war as well as the hard work of his volunteers did much of the rest to help him stun Johnson in New Hampshire. McCarthy’s low-key speeches offered quotations from Toynbee and Hannibal.
Over it all hung the threat that Robert Kennedy might change his mind. “Bobby’s tragedy,” the candidate mused, “is that to beat me, he’s going to have to destroy his brother. … That’s kind of Greek, isn’t it?”