In the spring of 1968 I covered Eugene McCarthy for a short period during his remarkable campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which led to both President Johnson’s withdrawal as a candidate and Bobby Kennedy’s decision to be one. Shana Alexander, my close friend and colleague at Life, who has always had an uncanny instinct for spotting the real story, was sticking to Clean Gene like glue and writing about him frequently. A few weeks after Kennedy’s assassination an exhausted McCarthy needed a place to hide out and reinvigorate himself for the Democratic convention. I suggested to Shana my family place in Maine, and she passed on the invitation to Gene. That’s how little old Hancock Point, a finger of land in French-man Bay pointing across the water at Mount Desert, got a famous visitor early that July.
The Secret Service set up a round-the-clock watch, pitching a tent near McCarthy’s beach cottage as its headquarters. Even though it was amusing having law enforcement people behind every bush, Martin Luther King’s assassination in April followed by Kennedy’s in June made protection, especially for a candidate, no laughing matter. My big family loved Gene, and for several days we all played together on beaches and boats. Once on a picnic we anchored our lobster boat in a cove on the far side of a high-cliffed island, completely cutting off radio communications with the mainland. I can still see the ashen face of the Secret Service man who was accompanying us as he tried desperately to make contact.
My most vivid memory of the senator’s visit happened one night as we all were gathering for dinner. From the dusk outside, my wife’s mother spotted Gene silhouetted in the brightly lit dining-room window. Making her hand into a pistol, she took aim and said, “Row! I could knock him off so easily!” From the bushes at her side came a real pistol and a voice that contradicted her. “Oh, no, you couldn’t,” it told us in no uncertain tone. For me that voice and the pistol from the bush are still a stark reminder of that year, of King and Kennedy, and all the rest who were to come as we stepped into a new age of senseless violence, terrorism, and assassination from which we have not been able to escape.