Off the Rails: Mad Men and American Liberalism in 1968

Lyndon Johnson apparently never heard Walter Cronkite of CBS tell his millions of viewers in February of 1968 that he thought Vietnam unwinnable. Johnson’s reelection bid was instead torpedoed by an even more unlikely source: fellow Democrat Eugene McCarthy, in a moment that would have long echoing repercussions for American liberalism. As Mark Steyn wrote in his obituary for McCarthy in the March 2006 Atlantic, “If you strike at the king, you have to kill him. And, amazingly, Eugene McCarthy did:”

On March 12, 1968, the not exactly barnstorming senator got 42.4 percent of Democratic votes in the New Hampshire primary and denied the sitting president even a majority of his own party’s supporters: Lyndon Johnson secured just 49.5 percent. Within three weeks, he was gone: the president announced he would not seek re-election and effectively ended his political career. The king was dead, long live … well, not Senator McCarthy: the man who plunged the dagger in did not take the crown. But his few short weeks of stumping the Granite State changed his party, with consequences it lives with to this day. The LBJ diehards who dismissed him as a mere “footnote in history” failed to understand how much damage one footnote can do when he doesn’t mind whose toes he steps on and all the bigfeet turn out to have feet of clay. Thus, the paradox of Gene McCarthy: the revered liberal icon who destroyed the last successful liberal presidency. His act of insouciant regicide was the defining moment in the Democrats’ modern history.

Foreshadowing the presidential bid of George McGovern four years later, the otherwise milquetoast appearing McCarthy built up an odd assortment of ‘60s radicals supporting his pyrrhic campaign: Emmett Tyrrell of the American Spectator coined the phrase “coat and tie radicals” to describe those who professed to “get clean for Gene.”

They were “leftists of various degrees, though years ago they lost sight of Marx or for that matter of any other systematic thinker on the left. In their twenties they went into politics, social work, the media, and the corporate world. They donned bourgeois attire when appropriate, or when advantageous they affected leftist fashions. That is why, since college days, we on the right have called them Coat and Tie Radicals,” Tyrrell wrote in early 2007, just as Hillary Clinton – herself a supporter of Eugene McCarthy – was about tee off against an even more radical and much more dynamic opponent, Barack Obama.

Of course, while campus radicals were donning coat and ties in 1968 to tone down their appearance, many American elites were discarding these venerable symbols of traditional style. In the current season of Mad Men, while Don Draper still, at least in the office, thankfully clings to his fedora and Brooks Brothers suit and tie, anyone who’s followed the show from its debut has seen the dramatic transformation of its interpretations of the era’s fashions and hair styles, which has accelerated in the new season. It is 1968, after all. (Note Sammy’s roach clip at the 1:50 mark, by the way):