Over the weekend an important role player in America’s political evolution passed away with the death of former South Dakota US Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.
McGovern’s nomination signaled a transition between the once dominant ideologue-less machine wing of the Democratic Party to the “true liberals”. McGovern was the Democrats’ Barry Goldwater. And like his senate colleague from the opposite side of the political spectrum, he was handily trounced in a national election.
But on the way to annihilation, McGovern changed presidential politics forever as head of a Democratic commission charged with reforming the delegate selection process. The systematic changes made to the nomination process ended unit rule voting at the conventions and limited the control state parties had on the selection of national convention delegates.
A consequence of the changes was that states abandoned manipulated caucuses for presidential primaries as a means of allocating delegates.
Though the rules would only affect the Democratic nomination process, the McGovern reforms ended up changing the Republicans’ delegate selection as well since many states simply fixed the GOP primaries on the same day as the Democratic contests.
To give you an idea of how things used to work, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey did not formally contest a single presidential primary, did not carry a single state and placed 7th with 2.2% of the total ballots cast in the Democratic primaries. Yet, Humphrey was nominated on the first ballot of the 1968 Democratic National Convention with 1,759.5 delegates (67%).
Little wonder why so many activists rioted in Chicago.
McGovern benefited from his own rules when he sought the party nomination for president in 1972. McGovern ran a competitive second against the Democratic establishment’s favored candidate, Maine US Senator Ed Muskie, in the New Hampshire primary and emerged as the candidate to beat thereafter.
After the collapse of the “inevitable” Muskie, McGovern benefited from George Wallace’s clipping of Humphrey, who entered the race later as an alternative to the grassroots-powered McGovern candidacy. The split field allowed the McGovern’s niche candidacy to emerge victorious in one of the most fractured presidential nomination fights in modern times.
But McGovern’s triumph would be fleeting. Hard feelings by many Democratic party regulars who were humbled by McGovern’s young amateurs (which included the likes of Gary Hart and Bill Clinton) during the intraparty warfare led to a division within the party that would not be healed by November.
Whatever hope McGovern had of winning the White House was dashed in his bumbling handling of the revelation that his running mate, Missouri US Senator Tom Eagleton, had received electroshock treatment for depression.
The principled McGovern infamously stated that he stood by Eagleton “1000%” before forcing him off the ticket.
Though the move might have made McGovern look shallow, it cannot be said Eagleton’s jettisoning was undeserved. It would be later revealed that Eagleton had been Robert Novak’s undisclosed Democratic source behind the “amnesty, abortion, acid” framing of McGovern’s candidacy.
Anyone who honestly thinks that CREEP or G. Gordon Liddy was responsible for McGovern’s political self-immolation and landslide defeat should consider receiving the aforementioned treatment.
“Too bad McGovern didn’t win in 1972,” are words no sane person said even after the tumult of Watergate and the resignation of the 37th president.
The exposure of the dirty tricks squad, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the presidential complicit cover-up may have confirmed all of the negative things McGovern said about the character of the president and his men, but those revelations in no way made the Democratic Party’s leading peacenik look any more palatable as a president.
McGovern would be the first Democrat to not carry a single southern state in the history of the once-Dixie-centric party.
McGovern’s soft socialism, appeasement posturing and Jane Fonda-esque chumming with the likes of Fidel Castro made him political disagreeable to mainstream America.
McGovern at his best was the epitome of Christian compassion though at worst a naïve unwitting tool of America’s enemies, though his virtues outweighing his sins due to purity of his intent.
McGovern’s lasting reforms to the presidential nomination process and emergence as a true conscience liberal nominee for his party gave him a relevance far beyond his 37.5% of the popular vote plus the Massachusetts and DC electoral votes in the 1972 presidential election.
On top of his political legacy McGovern was also a decorated military hero.
I’d like to close with a brief story that best sums up McGovern.
A few years ago I had the privilege of attending a speech he gave at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans about his service as a bomber pilot in the European theatre.
During one mission, McGovern’s plane had dropped bombs in a rural area and as his munitions fell to the earth, he saw a farmer trying to avoid being caught in the explosion. McGovern assumed that the unfortunate civilian had died in the bombing and the image had stuck in his mind.
Many years later he was doing an interview on a German-language television program when he related that particular bomb run and would later learn to his great relief that the “targeted” farmer saw the program and made a point of contacting the station to pass along word that he had survived by jumping in a ditch without a moment to spare.
No matter how the political chips or live bombs fell, McGovern always remained true to his conscience.
If you could not support McGovern’s positions, you could at least respect his altruism.