40 years later, McGovern legacy thrivesAt anniversary of 1972 campaign, observer says late senator ‘saved’ party.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a weekly series examining the events of 40 years ago in the presidential campaign of Mitchell’s George McGovern. George McGovern’s unlikely quest for the presidency ended in a landslide defeat 40 years ago next week.
The Democratic senator from South Dakota was crushed by President Richard Nixon, the Republican incumbent, who won a second term on Nov. 7, 1972.
Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew defeated McGovern and his running mate, Sargent Shriver, 520 to 17 in the Electoral College and 47,169,911 to 29,170,383 in the popular vote. The 60.7 to 37.5 percent defeat was among the worst in American presidential history.
McGovern only carried Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He lost his native South Dakota 166,476 to 139,945, which especially hurt, he later admitted.
Yet McGovern was hailed as “The Father of the Modern Democratic Party” during a prayer service Oct. 25, as Vice President Joe Biden and others praised McGovern for the changes he made to the party during that doomed run for the presidency.
Gary Hart, who attended the prayer service and spoke at McGovern’s funeral on Oct. 26, agreed with that assessment during an interview with The Daily Republic this summer.
“That’s the hard thesis. I’ve said this for 40 years, that George McGovern saved the Democratic Party by reforming it,” Hart said. “That is his greatest contribution.”
He said after the fractious 1968 Democratic National Convention, with rioting outside the halls in Chicago and bitter disputes inside, the Democratic Party was at risk of splitting.
The old-time insiders resented the new voices who wanted inclusion, Hart said, and the young people who were trying to make their voices heard didn’t trust the people who had held the reins for decades.
“I think the McGovern campaign saved, and opened, the party,” Hart said.
Changing the party
McGovern was the original chairman of the Democratic Party’s Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection , which was formed in 1969 to examine how the Democratic Party selected its presidential nominee.
It became known as the McGovern Commission and was later called the Fraser Commission after McGovern departed in 1971 to run for president, and Minnesota Congressman Don Fraser took the helm.
The new rules that McGovern oversaw changed how a presidential candidate was picked. The entire matter must be done more openly, the rules stated, and a more diverse field of delegates must be chosen.
Primaries and caucuses, previously a small part of the process, gained great power. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey had not entered a single primary or caucus, yet he was the Democratic nominee.
In 1972, McGovern earned delegates and gained a great deal of national attention by running and winning in caucuses and primaries across the country. It created the pattern for how both the Democratic and Republican parties pick their candidate in modern times.
The people making those choices were party loyalists, the kind of people who would vote in an early primary, and take part in a caucus on a cold winter night in Iowa.
Patrick Caddell was a 21-year-old pollster with some revolutionary ideas on how to track voters and guide campaigns when he joined the McGovern campaign in 1972. He went on to become a pollster and key adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and later worked for Hart, Joe Biden and other Democrats. He is now a political consultant and a Fox News contributor.
As he left McGovern’s funeral, Caddell said the 1972 campaign established a template that is still being used.
He also said the Democratic Party will only succeed in the future if it adopts a “moral” tone in its policies and proposals.
Caddell summed up his feelings about McGovern and the 1972 campaign in a column he wrote shortly after the South Dakota icon and Avon and Mitchell native died.
“His changing of the backroom politics of the Democratic Party made the election of Jimmy Carter possible,” Caddell wrote.
“What stands out most in my memory of McGovern is the enormous integrity that he brought to politics, the idealistic belief that people can make a difference and the humility of understanding the limits of one person.
“The devastating loss he suffered in 1972 in the end became, in defeat, ennobling and the man who defeated him was humiliated.
“All my life I have been proud to have said that I stood with George McGovern in 1972. … I was a child of the McGovern campaign.”
‘Young people with long hair’
Another veteran political insider, Steve Jarding, a Mitchell native who has worked in campaigns across the country, said McGovern’s 1972 race was revolutionary.
“There is no question George McGovern was the architect of the modern, more open national nominating process still in place today in American presidential politics,” Jarding said.
Reporters who covered the campaign also still find reasons to praise McGovern and note his contributions to the Democratic Party.
Veteran political reporter Jules Witcover, 85, covered the 1972 race for the Los Angeles Times.
“He wasn’t at the outset a very dynamic campaigner,” he said of McGovern. “But the issue of the war brought out a lot of force and strength in his campaign style.”
Witcover said he agrees with McGovern, who said this summer that Nixon was almost impossible to beat in 1972 with the country at war, the economy fairly strong and Nixon opening doors to China and the Soviet Union.
“I think to a degree that’s a valid point,” he said.
Witcover said the “young people with long hair” who were a major part of the McGovern movement irritated a lot of middle-class Americans, who turned against the Democrats.
But those young voters became loyal Democrats in future years, and some were leaders of the party, such as President Bill Clinton, who was in charge of Texas for McGovern in 1972.
The campaign also brought more women and minorities into the party, creating a new base of a party that had relied on an increasingly shaky coalition of southern Democrats, big-city Democrats guided by political machines, and union Democrats who had long had great power within the party.
Many of those blue-collar Democrats left the party in and after 1972, and some stayed home on Election Day. But they were replaced by a new kind of Democrat.
Some critics say there has been a cost to the McGovern reforms. They say the process he created gives too loud a voice to the left in the Democratic Party and the right in the Republican Party.
While party bosses selected a candidate they thought would appeal to the widest possible group of American voters, candidates who appeal to primary and caucus voters are often the favorites of the party’s most active, and often most extreme, members.
The Democrats went down in flames in 1984 with liberal Walter Mondale as its nominee, and again in 1988 with liberal Michael Dukakis as its choice, and in 2004, when liberal John Kerry was at the top of the ticket.
Both Mondale and Kerry attended McGovern’s funeral.
The party won in 1976 with moderate Jimmy Carter running, and in 1992 and 1996 when moderate Bill Clinton was its nominee.
Carter lost to conservative Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980, however, and Democrat Barack Obama, a liberal, won the presidency in 2008, and is seeking a second term this year.
Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, raised his voice to honor McGovern during the prayer service. He said McGovern had bravely stood up for reform, peace and inclusion, and had taken blows for his beliefs.
A 2000 essay by Scott Pirith, a Bowling Green State University political science professor, titled “Selecting Presidential Nominees: The Evolution of the Current System and Prospects for Reform,” took a closer look at the consequences of the 1972 reform efforts.
“There is considerable evidence that the reformers on the McGovern-Fraser Commission did not intend to create a process dominated by primaries,” Pirith wrote. “Rather, they envisioned a system in which caucuses continued to dominate, but such caucuses would have new rules to prevent their manipulation by party leaders.
“… One reason why the Democrats’ reforms ultimately led most states to adopt primaries is that party leaders had quick proof that, under the new rules, a well-organized candidate who lacked broad popular support could nevertheless win in lowturnout caucuses, and they rightly feared that such candidates would not fare well in general elections. Caucuses discourage participation because they are more complicated and time consuming than are primary elections.”
He noted that McGovern finished second to Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the 1968 Democratic nominee, in total votes earned during the 1972 primaries, and McGovern collected just one-fourth of total votes cast.
But his effectiveness in caucus states sealed the nomination.
That strategy was echoed in 2008 when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama finished second to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in votes gathered, but edged her for the nomination thanks to a better-organized campaign and greater success in caucus states.
The parties have sought to balance out the impact of McGovern’s changes.
Today, more primaries are held early, in an effort to blunt the growth of a fringe candidate who catches fire early in the process. That gives an edge to better-known, and better-financed, campaigns.
“Given the importance of money in a front-loaded primary season, perhaps it is the contributors who really decide who the nominees will be,” Pirith wrote.
McGovern was able to laugh off his loss over the years, at least publicly.
“I opened the doors of the Democratic Party and 20 million people walked out,” he said.
But McGovern also admitted that the loss, especially in such a massive manner, hurt him deeply. He and his wife Eleanor briefly considered moving to England.
In an interview with The Daily Republic the day after the 1972 election, McGovern said he had few regrets, and would not seek the White House again.
He didn’t stick to that pledge.
McGovern considered a run for the presidency in 1976, but chose not to run. He did try again in 1984, when he ran as a voice for liberal causes and dropped out fairly early in the race. McGovern then hosted “Saturday Night Live” in order to pay off outstanding campaign bills.
He considered one final run for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, and even consulted with Nixon about the race when the two old rivals met on a flight, but in the end decided not to run.
Although his political career was at an end, McGovern remained on the stage. The 1972 campaign, which has been detailed in books, columns and a documentary film, remained the high spot in his career.
The Democratic Party should someday pay proper tribute to McGovern, Caddell said. That’s a point Hart made as well in his funeral oration.
McGovern said this summer he didn’t care anymore if the party recognized him at its conventions. In the past, including in 2008, when he was shunted to the shadows and not recognized during the proceedings, he admitted it irritated him.
This summer, McGovern said that wound had healed.
“I can’t control that situation,” he said in an interview with his hometown newspaper. “I don’t care if I’m in the back row now.”
But the old liberal said he did have some words of wisdom for President Obama.
“I’d advise him to get out of Afghanistan and I would advise him to follow President (Franklin) Roosevelt’s formula for dealing with unemployment, which is providing public employment for people who can’t get a job in the private sector,” McGovern said.
“I think we need that kind of thing again to put people back to work.”
It was 40 years after he was the Democratic nominee, but George McGovern still had ideas on how America should act, and how political leaders should guide it.