From the mountaintop to the valleyLate speech, poor running mate pick quickly changed McGovern’s triumph into his downfall.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
The 1972 Democratic National Convention was the best of times for George McGovern. He was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate.
It was also the worst of times. The convention was a wild, wooly and at times out-of-control operation, with the candidate giving his acceptance speech in the middle of the night after most Americans had gone to bed. It would prove to be the first of many negative developments on McGovern’s way to a landslide loss in the general election.
“I was very tired in 1972 and so were all my key people,” McGovern said in a telephone interview with The Daily Republic in late June. “We were exhausted.”
The McGovern team was embroiled in a battle over the division of the 271 delegates he had claimed by winning the California primary June 6. A coalition of leading Democrats was trying everything to deny him the nomination
“We thought we had the nomination sewed up, but we had to turn back that final challenge to take the California vote away from us,” he said. “We should have been resting and giving careful thought of who would be my vice president and working on my acceptance speech.
“We had to do all those things while defending our right to that California vote, which we had clearly earned.”
The convention lasted four days, Monday through Thursday, July 10-13, in Miami.
A vote Monday would determine if McGovern would be allowed to keep all the 271 delegates he had claimed in the winner-take-all primary in California. The battle over those delegates had already been fought in a Democratic committee meeting, in federal court and finally before the Supreme Court, which ruled that it was up to the Democrats to decide who received the convention votes.
McGovern said he was disappointed his longtime friend and mentor, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., put up such a fight before the convention. Humphrey had emerged as McGovern’s main rival for the nomination and the pair battled all through the spring.
They had been neighbors for 15 years; when McGovern was elected to Congress in 1956, Humphrey helped pick out a house for him near Washington, D.C.
For years they occasionally drove back and forth to the Capitol together, McGovern recalled. Both South Dakota natives, they were two of the leading liberals in the Senate. Humphrey had run for the presidency in 1960, served as vice president from 1965 to 1969, and was the Democratic nominee in 1968. In 1972, he fought McGovern all the way to the convention.
The two men later repaired their friendship, McGovern said, and Humphrey campaigned for him in 1974 when McGovern won a third Senate term.
After the month-long battle, McGovern carried the vote on July 10 when the delegates voted to follow the pre-set rules and award all the California delegates to McGovern. That meant he would indeed be the nominee.
Picking a running mate was next.
He finally selected Sen. Tom Eagleton, 42, a handsome, well-spoken Democrat from Missouri. The theory was that Eagleton, a Catholic, would be able to reach out to blue-collar ethnic voters who were wary of McGovern, who was seen by some as too liberal, too quirky and too much out of the mainstream.
McGovern’s original choice was Sen. Ted Kennedy, the last of the famed trio of brothers who had seized the nation’s attention in the 1960s.
But Kennedy, who had been the frontrunner for the 1972 Democratic nomination before his mysterious car accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969, declined to run. The murders of his two brothers also weighed heavily on him.
McGovern then considered Kennedy’s brother-in-law, R. Sargent “Sarge” Shriver, who was married to Eunice Kennedy, a sister to the former president.
But Sargent Shriver was in the Soviet Union during the convention and could not be reached. McGovern then turned to other top Democrats.
Humphrey said no, as did other potential running mates. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter asked for the nomination, but since he had joined the efforts to deny McGovern the nomination, he was passed over.
The newly crowned nominee was left trying to find someone credible to run with him. It was a harried time, and most prominent Democrats, convinced he was going to lose, deferred when offered the VP slot, he said.
“We were just exhausted by the time we got to Miami,” McGovern said. “And that’s too bad. Because when you get fatigued, you make mistakes.
“What we should have done is say we were going to take additional time. And so be it,” he said. “We went by the traditions rather than what was the practical solution.”
McGovern chose Eagleton after a brief interview and check on his background. The Missouri senator, eager for a shot at the national stage, said he had nothing in his background that would harm the campaign.
“George, before you change your mind, I accept,” Eagleton said when McGovern called to offer the nomination as his running mate.
It was soon reported that Eagleton had received electroshock therapy for mental health issues in the 1960s. The story bloomed into a scandal that enveloped the campaign, and McGovern eventually dropped Eagleton and replaced him with Shriver.
McGovern now admits he wishes he had made a very dramatic choice that may have swung the election in his favor.
He should have picked Walter Cronkite for a running mate, he said.
Frank Mankiewicz, who was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s press secretary from 1965 to 1968 and served as McGovern’s campaign director in 1972, knew of Cronkite’s liberal leanings.
The newsman kept them private during his years on CBS, but privately, he told people what his views were.
Cronkite urged Kennedy to run for president in 1968 on an anti-war platform, according to Mankiewicz. The story is repeated in the new book “Cronkite,” an exhaustively detailed biography of the legendary TV anchor.
In 1972, some Democrats thought Cronkite, who was known as “the most trusted man in America,” could be a game-changer for the McGovern campaign. Buttons urging his selection appeared on the convention floor.
“Walter Cronkite told Senator McGovern that if he had only asked him he would’ve accepted,” Mankiewicz told C-SPAN in 2009. “So if the ticket, in ’72, would’ve been McGovern and Cronkite, I think it would’ve been a different election,”
McGovern said he should have listened to Mankiewicz’s out-of-the-box suggestion and selected Cronkite. Years later, while he served on same board with Cronkite, he asked him if he would have accepted the offer.
“He said, ‘Oh, well, being what it was I couldn’t turn down the second-most powerful office in the world,’ ” McGovern said. “I think Cronkite would have been the perfect choice.”
Once he had announced his support for Eagleton, the convention had to vote on it. McGovern allowed the delegates to have fun with the VP process.
It dragged on and on and on. Numerous politicians received votes. TV reporter Roger Mudd got a couple, and fictional character “Archie Bunker” from the hit TV show “All in the Family” also received one, as did Eleanor McGovern, the senator’s wife.
“I assume that everyone here is impressed with my control of this convention that my choice for vice president was challenged by only 39 other nominees,” McGovern said in his acceptance speech, which was delivered at about 2:45 a.m.
The Democrats had hoped up to 30 million people would be watching, but estimates were that only 8 million had remained awake for the speech.
“We could have stopped it. By then we controlled the convention,” McGovern recalled this year. “We needed to protect prime time. We made a mistake.”
It was a serious one, since candidates rely on the “convention bounce” to launch their campaign for the White House.
Even though McGovern, who wrote his own speech in longhand on a legal pad, gave what is considered the greatest address of his life — the “Come Home, America” speech — few people were watching as he took the podium after an arena-rattling introduction from Ted Kennedy.
“Chairman O’Brien, Chairwoman Burke, Senator Kennedy, Senator Eagleton and my fellow citizens, I’m happy to join us for this benediction of our Friday sunrise service,” he said with a broad smile as he launched into the speech.
“My nomination is all the more precious and that it is a gift of the most open political process in all of our political history,” he said. “It is the sweet harvest of the work of tens of thousands of tireless volunteers, young and old alike, funded by literally hundreds of thousands of small contributors in every part of this nation. … This is the people’s nomination and next January we will restore the government to the people of this country. I believe that American politics will never be quite the same again.”
It was the speech of his life, but because of the bungled convention, it had virtually no positive impact on the general election race.