Posted by keithosaunders on December 17, 2010
And now, for a sorbet, a palette cleanser, let’s talk George McGovern. I was 12 years old when the long-time senator from South Dakota won the Democratic nomination. He would proceed to suffer the largest defeat ever by a presidential candidate, winning just 17 electoral votes to Richard Nixon’s 520. Massachusetts and Washington D.C. were his only two electoral victories; he did not even win his home state.
McGovern was a war hero in World War Two; a pilot who flew many dangerous missions, was injured in battle, and was able to execute a difficult landing on a short runway with a damaged plane, thus saving his crew.
In the Senate he fought hard for migrant farm workers, as well as an expanded food stamp program, but most of all he was known for his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War. As early as 1963 he had challenged the burgeoning U.S. involvement in the war.
The 1972 Democratic primaries found McGovern in a three-way race with Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, the governor of Alabama. Wallace, who had run as an independent in the ’68 election, stated that he was no longer a segregationist and had become more moderate. His campaign, however, was based upon a fierce opposition to desegregation busing and this turned out to be an issue that was harmful to McGovern. Wallace siphoned off southern votes — McGovern did not win one county in Florida — and even took large swaths of votes in northern states. So much so that by May he had a lead in votes, though not in delegates.
The all-important union support was slow to come to McGovern. Much of the union leadership supported the Vietnam war, as well as opposed busing. Their support, at least at the outset was more likely to go to Humphrey.
The election swung on a tragedy. On May 15th Wallace was shot at point-blank range during a campaign appearance. He was paralyzed from the waist down and had to withdraw from the campaign.
McGovern was able to eek out a win in California and ultimately win his party’s nomination. He chose as his running mate Tom Eagleton, a Missouri senator. When it was revealed that Eagleton had undergone shock therapy for clinical depression McGovern accepted Eagleton’s resignation from the campaign. Five prominent Democrats turned down the offer of the VP slot before the campaign settled on the U.S. ambassador to France, Sargent Shriver.
Given this comedy of errors it is no small wonder that Richard Nixon felt it necessary to gain an edge in the campaign by bugging the Democrat National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel. This has to be considered paranoia’s finest hour!
My take-away from this is that the issue of busing, though well-intentioned, was a disaster for the Democrats. It virtually cost them the entire south which had long been a stronghold, as well as much of the industrialized north. Blue collar workers who had voted Democrat for generations became Republicans practically overnight.
McGovern remained a senator until 1980 when he was defeated for reelection. By this time the Reagan revolution was in full swing. We will never know what kind of president he would have been. Almost certainly the war would have ended much sooner, which would have saved thousands of lives.
Because of his landslide defeat in 1972, as well as the demonization of the word ‘liberal,’ he tends to be remembered in a negative light. In reality he was a good man; a great senator who opposed an unjust war and worked hard to improve the lives of the poor. Things broke right for him to gain the nomination but the reality was that he, or any other candidate, for that matter, had little hope of defeating Nixon.
Although I was only a boy, I remember watching his acceptance speech at that ’72 convention, and I recall the feelings of hope and possibility that were in the air for such a brief period of time.