George McGovern: He deserved better

In 1972 the populist war hero was destroyed by Richard Nixon's dirty tricks and Democrats' self-destructive fear

Published October 21, 2012 12:26PM (EDT)

Sen. George McGovern accepts the Democratic presidential nomination at the closing session of the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Fla., in this July 14, 1972 file photo.        (AP/Ray Stubblebine)
Sen. George McGovern accepts the Democratic presidential nomination at the closing session of the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Fla., in this July 14, 1972 file photo. (AP/Ray Stubblebine)

More than 30 years before Karl Rove and friends Swift-boated Vietnam War hero John Kerry, Republicans managed to turn a decorated World War II combat veteran, a devout Christian and a son of the Depression-era Plains heartland into the elite, effete counterculture candidate of "amnesty, abortion and acid." But when Republicans destroyed the 1972 presidential candidacy of George McGovern, who died early this morning at the age of 90, they had more than a little help from Democrats.

Years after Robert Novak tarred the South Dakota senator and Democratic nominee with favoring "amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot" (over time "pot" got replaced with the alliterative "acid") in a column attributing the quote to an unnamed Democratic senator, the right-wing columnist revealed that his source had been Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton – who briefly served as McGovern's running mate in 1972. Ironically, Eagleton himself probably sealed McGovern's losing fate when it was revealed that he'd undergone electroshock therapy for depression and hadn't told the campaign (he then stepped aside for Sargent Shriver). Eagleton's double shot at McGovern took its toll, and the Democratic nominee lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia that year.

McGovern's loss is a case study in how low Republicans would go, and how much Democrats would do to help them, in those turbulent post-60s years of despair and liberal self-destruction.

The son of a Methodist minister, McGovern grew up in Depression-era Mitchell, South Dakota and never forgot the raw Dustbowl desperation he witnessed there. He volunteered for the Air Force at the start of World War II and won the Distinguished Flying Cross; just as influential in his career was the hunger he saw in Italy as the war came to a close, which led to his lifelong work on hunger relief. He returned home and went to divinity school on the G.I. Bill but switched to history, doing his doctoral dissertation on the 1913 Colorado coal strike, which shaped his lifelong advocacy for labor. He supported Henry Wallace's Progressive Party presidential bid in 1948, but moved away due to the predominance of what he derided as "fanatics," Communists and extremists.

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1956 (despite being red-baited for his Wallace association, a sign of things to come), he ran for Senate in 1960, campaigning alongside John F. Kennedy. Kennedy later lamented that he probably cost McGovern his election, given that the Massachusetts Catholic was associated with a toxic East Coast liberalism unpopular in South Dakota. He was right; McGovern lost, but Kennedy made him the first director of his Food for Peace program (he would be President Clinton's Ambassador to United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture through both Clinton terms.) McGovern won the senate seat in 1962.

Almost immediately, he began speaking out against rising U.S. involvement in Vietnam, even during Kennedy's presidency. Although he would vote for Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin resolution, he would later say he was misled, and his guilt over that vote helped fuel what even admirers called his "obsession" with ending the war. With Republican Mark Hatfield, he would dog Nixon with the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment threatening to cut off war funding in the absence of a deadline to withdraw troops.

Despite a strong pro-labor voting record, McGovern's opposition to the war helped alienate him from hawkish union leaders, particularly AFL-CIO president George Meany. Although McGovern declined to be the standard-bearer for the anti-war Dump Johnson campaign, he briefly jumped into the 1968 race after Bobby Kennedy's assassination in June, representing Kennedy's delegates at the disastrous Chicago convention. He wound up far behind Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in the delegate count, and immediately endorsed Humphrey. Unlike McCarthy: the Minnesota senator and some of his supporters in the party's liberal anti-war wing arguably helped elect Nixon, by withholding support from Humphrey until Johnson announced he would stop his bombing campaign on the eve of the election, and even then, support was grudging. That disrespect for Humphrey worsened the split between big labor and the New Left that was already weakening the Democratic Party. Center right Democrats got their revenge by abandoning McGovern in 1972.

Before the South Dakota senator won the nomination, Meany's top lieutenants drove the Stop McGovern movement, backed by southern Democrats including Jimmy Carter who believed McGovern was too liberal to win the presidency. Tom Eagleton's infamous interview with Novak was part of the effort to marginalize him. "The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot," Eagleton told Novak. "Once middle America – Catholic middle America, in particular – finds this out, he’s dead."

Catholic voters were in fact key to Nixon's plan to wrest the white working class away from the Democratic Party. As an adjunct to his famous "Southern strategy," Kevin Phillips helped Nixon devise a northern strategy that involved luring voters from "the Catholic sidewalks of New York," largely on issues of race and culture. The Stop McGovern forces denounced McGovern and his coalition as "elitists," giving Nixon the ammunition he'd later use to turn the plainspoken prairie populist into the poster boy for liberal privilege and condescension toward common folks.

Of course, Meany and his allies were also enraged at McGovern's role in rules changes that opened the party up to the young and diverse forces that had been shut out of Chicago '68. When Meany arrived in Miami for the 1972 convention he famously sneered at New York's delegates:  "What kind of delegation is this? They've got six open fags and only three AFL-CIO people on that delegation!" (In fact, there were more labor delegates than there had been in 1968, according to labor historian Jefferson Cowie; they just weren't Meany's guys.) He later described the '72 convention delegates as "people who looked like Jacks, acted like Jills and had the odors of Johns."

Protracted floor-fighting over the new rules pushed McGovern's moving acceptance speech, "Come Home, America," into the wee small hours when no one was watching. With photos of Jack and Bobby Kennedy above him as he spoke, McGovern tried to rally the factions of a forlorn party that had been shattered by multiple assassinations, a divisive battle against an unjust war and the necessary struggle to combat the cruel persistence of racism. The '72 convention was another debacle for the Democrats, less bloody than Chicago '68 but arguably no less damaging.

In the end, the stubborn Meany managed to withhold the AFL-CIO's endorsement from a candidate who had a 93.5 percent voting record on the Federation's scorecard. As Bruce Miroff recounts in "The Liberal Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party," Meany worked hard to prevent even state and local affiliates from helping McGovern. While nominally neutral, he went golfing with Nixon, and in an appearance on "Face the Nation" weeks before the election he called McGovern "an apologist for the Communist world." It was probably overkill; McGovern never really recovered from the Eagleton disaster or labor's mutiny.

For his part, Nixon had always wanted to face liberal McGovern, so his crew of "ratfuckers" mostly messed with his rivals, forging a series of nasty letters from Edmund Muskie that damaged him with key constituencies, then picking up the same trick with forged letters from Hubert Humphrey. Still, Nixon planned one of his dirtiest tricks for McGovern after George Wallace was shot by Milwaukeean Arthur Bremer: He and Chuck Colson discussed sending Howard Hunt to Milwaukee to plant McGovern campaign literature in Bremer's apartment; they gave up the plot when they learned the FBI had already sealed the premises.

Once McGovern had the nomination, Nixon obsessed over defeating him.  In his memoir, John Ehrlichman recounted the personal instructions he received from Nixon.

There should be more "savage attack lines" in our literature. McGovern advocates amnesty for draft dodgers. Put in there it may cost a billion dollars just to buy enough white flags for America. …We must always stay with his worst positions, putting him way over on the left. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Angela Davis are around his neck. The issues are radicalism, peace at any price, a second rate United States; running down the United States; square America versus radical America.

It worked. Of course Nixon's aggressiveness was ultimately his downfall; he resigned over the scandal around his henchmen breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building. A year after the '72 election, polls showed Americans would choose McGovern if they had it to do over again. Yet McGovern would later lose his Senate seat in the Republican landslide of 1980 that elected Ronald Reagan; it was like Nixon's third term.

When I asked labor historian Jefferson Cowie in an interview whether he could identify one crucial moment in the Democratic Party's post-'60s unraveling, I expected him to fudge like a good academic, but he surprised me; he had one: "The 1972 decision by organized labor…to destroy McGovern.  Because that solidified a moment. It said, 'We can't work with the unions,' to the left and to the women's movement and the rest. It said organized labor is just about guys like George Meany, and Mayor Daley, it's really the same monster, we can't deal with them. And that creates a natural alliance between the New Left and the New Democrats, who were much more sympathetic to important issues of diversity than to labor."

McGovern's campaign manager, Gary Hart, would pioneer the idea of "New Democrats" who owed no allegiance to labor. When he ran for Senate in 1974, Hart titled his stump speech "The End of the New Deal." That same year he proclaimed that his new generation of Democrats were not just ''a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys," slandering labor's longtime champion. A young Bill and Hillary Clinton got their start on the McGovern campaign, and it's hard not to see the impact of McGovern's defeat on Clinton's careful centrism and Democratic Leadership Council politics. The DLC was formed in direct reaction to Walter Mondale's 1984 loss, which was even more lop-sided than McGovern's. But it was designed to eradicate McGovernism from the party – to define Democrats as tough on crime and welfare, friendly to business, hawkish on defense – everything McGovern supposedly was not. It also involved the party running away from its proud New Deal legacy, and defining itself more as what it wasn't than what it was.

How crucial were Democrats in helping Nixon shellack McGovern in 1972? Did Eagleton's claim that the South Dakota Methodist supported amnesty for draft resisters, abortion and the legalization of pot (in fact he favored some kind of amnesty for resisters but not deserters, was tepid on abortion rights and only favored lesser sentencing for marijuana) smear McGovern effectively even before Nixon could get to him? It's hard to say. Much of the country was in full revolt against what was perceived as the excesses of the 1960s, and McGovern's centrist Democratic detractors reflected that. Certainly some people genuinely believed McGovern was too liberal to be elected, and they were well within their rights to back an alternative candidate during the tough primary. But the party's inability to come together after a brutal fight in 1968 and again in 1972 helped confirm the national image of Democrats as fractious and incompetent, if nothing else. (That's why the party's ability to reunite after the bruising 2008 primary battle was crucial, and wasn't necessarily a given.)

McGovern tried to be a bridge between those warring factions, endorsing Humphrey in 1968 while trying to make room in the party for the new energy (and concerns) of younger, more diverse and more radical activists. It was a supremely worthy cause, even if he failed. And while the anti-war left bears some blame for abandoning Humphrey and helping elect Nixon in 1968, nothing that any lefty individual or institution did to hurt Humphrey comes close to what Meany did to destroy McGovern. Tragically, McGovern's defeat helped accelerate the big-business backlash that unraveled unionism.

Yet the small, true-blue McGovern coalition of '72 became the Obama coalition 36 years later. The president owed some of his primary victories to rule changes pioneered by the McGovern committee, even as he defeated a woman who got her political start in the 1972 campaign. This time around, a smaller, wiser AFL-CIO is a cornerstone of Obama's ground game, just this week promising it would knock on 5.5 million doors in swing states over the last four days of the campaign. It would be a great tribute to McGovern if Obama sticks to his fighting, populist campaign and defeats the pro-business, plutocratic backlash against liberalism represented by Mitt Romney.

By Joan Walsh

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Democratic Party George Mcgovern