It is very unusual for me to do obituary posts. I did one for Simon Wiesenthal a few weeks ago. Then I did my second a few minutes ago for Richard Pryor. This will be the third. In other words, I only do them for people who I really respect and feel that they made a big difference in the world, for the better.
Eugene McCarthy ran for President. He didn't win. He didn't even get nominated. In fact, he got beat in the New Hampshire primary in 1968. Yet it was his effort in losing, that truly shook the nation, caused a President to quit running for re-election, and made it clear that the idea that the war in Vietnam had unlimited support, and the the establishment could count on unlimited patience from the American people, was dead wrong. Later in that year of turmoil that included riots (including at the Democratic convention), the assassination of two great American icons who stood for justice for all, the reactionary Wallace campaign to roll back desgregation, Johnson was succeeded by Richard Nixon-- a President at least as complex and as dishonest as Johnson, but who perhaps ironically, nevertheless saw, after trying and failing to win the war, what Johnson could never see-- that the war was destined to drag on interminably until we left. So, ironically, it was Nixon who finally got us out of there.
But that would not have happened without McCarthy. Had he not run, President Johnson would certainly have won renomination, and very likely re-election (remember that Vice President Humphrey, effectively a 'status quo' candidate who represented Johnson, lost a very close race to Nixon). Then he would have continued his failed policy in Vietnam until a successor (who by that time would very likely have been a Republican, and very possibly Ronald Reagan) was chosen in 1972. The bruises that we as a nation suffered in Vietnam would by that time have become deep and gaping infections. So, the case can be made that McCarthy saved us as a nation from ourselves.
McCarthy ran for President four more times after 1968, but he never again recaptured the lighting that he held for a few brief days in that year, when he inspired and sparked a movement that quickly grew beyond any one person. He didn't need to inspire it anymore. He came along as the right man, with the right message, at the right moment in history.