I made my way through closets and boxes this past weekend in my annual effort to get rid of things untouched for years.
In a two-drawer file cabinet in an unlabeled Manila folder I found seven pages of single-spaced, typed (with a typewriter) notes from an October 1980 interview I did with Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, D-Minn., who died in 2005.
McCarthy was out of the Senate and doing at workshop at Governor’s State University in Illinois, where my sister served as vice president of Student Affairs. She arranged for a one-on-one for me with McCarthy, who ran for Democratic nomination for president in 1968 as an unabashed anti-Viet Nam War candidate. He nearly defeated President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. That close call convinced Johnson to get out of the race.
McCarthy did not get the Democratic Party nomination, which eventually went to another Minnesotan, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president. McCarthy ran for the party nomination again in 1972 and as an independent candidate in 1976 and again in 1988.
McCarthy came to GSU to lead a workshop on the “language” of politics. But when I interviewed him, neither of us really wanted to talk about that.
For more than an hour, he talked about what had become his passion — berating the two-party political system in the U.S. and knocking federal election laws designed to keep it in place. And when I interviewed him in October1980, Rep. John. B. Anderson, R-Ill., had gotten quite a bit of attention as a third-party candidate, while Democrat President Jimmy Carter battled with the eventual winner, President Ronald Reagan. Anderson pulled 6.6 percent of the vote in 1980, a pretty good showing.
But as McCarthy said during our interview, ballot access really makes it impossible for independent or third-party candidates to get any attention — or votes.
“My candidacy in 1976 has helped him (Anderson) some,” McCarthy told me. “We won some court cases — laid down the challenge for participation in the debates. We initiated court tests in 15 states on the constitutionality of their ballot access laws. The federal election laws were definitely drawn up to protect the two-party system.”
All this seems fitting as Americans trudge toward a November election with every indication that most folks don’t care much for either party in Congress and are no more enamored with the sitting president or his Republican challengers.
Yet, no legitimate alternatives arise.
“I’ve been encouraging people to vote for any of the third-party candidates,” McCarthy told me just a few weeks before the 1980 election. He referenced Anderson and four others — including write-in candidate rocker Joe Walsh. He campaigned on changing the national anthem to his hit song “Life’s Been Good.”
Well, life has not been good for many Americans.
McCarthy, a day after I interviewed him, endorsed Reagan. During our interview McCarthy said this about Reagan: “There is nothing in the record to indicate he deserves to be president.”
So much for credibility of third-party candidates, hey.