Political Animal


October 22, 2012 11:17 AM Good Person, Bad Things

By Ed Kilgore

Ryan Cooper took note of the passing of George McGovern over the weekend. But as a 1972 precinct chairman for McGovern who also spent a lot of time over the years thinking about the legacy of that campaign, I wanted to add a few personal notes.

It’s hard to overstate how shocking the 1972 results were to a lot of Democrats, particularly impressionable young folk like I was at the time. The adjective most often used to describe McGovern as a person, then and right up until his death, was “decent.” That was never a term associated with Richard M. Nixon. After running a textbook nomination campaign that perfectly exploited the new primary-based system that he and his staff understood much better than their rivals, McGovern’s general election campaign was a disastrous comedy of errors, beginning, of course, with the hasty choice of a running-mate who had to be discarded almost immediately, a fine acceptance speech that virtually no one saw (it was delivered between 2:00 and 3:00 AM EDT), and then the serial abandonment or repudiation of the ticket by a vast number of Democratic elected officials and interest groups.

Nixon, by contrast, capped a first-term record of almost systematic betrayal of everything he’d promised (or seemed to promise) to do by cooking up a phony peace offensive, deliberately inflating the economy, and making systematic raids on Democratic constituency groups. And oh, yeah, he also instigated and then covered up the series of nefarious activities later known collectively as Watergate. Whereas McGovern could not buy a break, Nixon got nothing but breaks, most notably the sidelining by attempted assassination of George Wallace, whose 1968 vote went almost uniformly into Nixon’s 1972 column.

To add insult to injury, McGovern took the blame for the first and most dramatic election in which the collapse of the New Deal Coalition became fully manifest. Humphrey’s near-win in 1968 distracted attention from the fact that he won the lowest percentage of the popular vote of any major-party candidate since Alf Landon. In 1976 Jimmy Carter disguised the structural trends by winning the South and southern-inflected voters in border states and the midwest—voters who, by and large (aside from the Deep South regional loyalists who stayed with Carter in 1980), weren’t going to vote Democratic in a presidential election again. When Fritz Mondale got blown out in 1984, it represented the fourth time in five cycles that the Democratic candidate won less than 43% of the popular vote nationally. Yet this era of defeat is very often associated with McGovern alone.

McGovern’s death has brought many reminders that even as he lost big chunks of the Democratic coalition in 1972, he attracted elements of a new coalition that would eventually help bring Democrats back to parity and occasional majority status decades later. It was no accident that his 1972 campaign manager, Gary Hart, challenged the old interest-and-identity-group foundation of the party in 1984, coming remarkably close to winning on a message that was basically the idea of new ideas. And for all the conventional analysis of the Democratic Party on left-center ideological lines, the Clintonian movement in the party owed a lot in its strategic thinking and self-conscious independence from what it called The Groups to the original McGovern campaign. And the connections were personal: Bill and Hillary Clinton, after all, more or less ran McGovern’s general election campaign in Texas, and most of the nascent New Democrat types in the 1990s had been Hart supporters in 1984.

So McGovern’s political legacy is a bit more complicated than the usual tale of the honest but feckless progressive who proved himself too good for the American people. And it’s not quite right to say, as some have, that McGovern was fully vindicated by the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. After the Carter interregnum, Nixon’s political and policy legacy continued to dominate the White House for three more terms, and certainly the Imperial Presidency and the temptation to exhibit it through irresponsible military action that McGovern protested in 1972 are as strong as ever today, and not just in the GOP.

The “too good to be president” meme is also unfortunate in a different sense: it fed an undercurrent of feeling among progressives identifying political strength with aggressiveness as thoroughly as conservatives identify national strength with militarism. McGovern and his campaign made plenty of mistakes, to be sure, but it’s hard to look back at 1972 and identify some moment when more viciousness and less decency would have made a positive difference.

In most respects, McGovern was simply in the wrong place (politically, not morally or substantively) at the wrong time, but in the end inspired more admiration than mockery, particularly among progressive baby boom generation activists who so often looked back at 1972 as the ultimate baptism of fire. May this good man and great patriot rest in peace.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Josef K on October 22, 2012 11:35 AM:

    I can think of worse epitaphs for someone. Certainly, I can't think of any currently living (or very recently deceased for that matter) Presidents who deserve such honest accolades.

  • hornblower on October 22, 2012 11:45 AM:

    He was an honorable man who I was proud to vote for. With the death of Bob Kennedy there was a vacuum in Democratic leadership. The Party was really in the possession of interest groups who were convinced of their own agenda and unwilling to made common cause with other Dems. I still remember the bumper sticker in 1974, "Don't blame me I'm from Massachusetts" that mentioned the only state McGovern carried. RIP.

  • c u n d gulag on October 22, 2012 11:53 AM:

    The 1960's and very early 70's, were the apogee of America.
    We had enfranchised African Americans into the political process.
    We had put men on the Moon.
    Our economy was the envy of all, wages were at an all-time high.
    We were nearing an Equal Rights Amendment, which was designed to guarantee equal rights for women.

    And unions felt strong and empowered.

    They also felt like they didn't need the Democrats any more, and their association with the anti-war protesteor/DFH's.

    McGovern suffered from that schism between unions and Democrats - which had actually started in the late 60's, with union members getting into fights with anti-war protesters.

    He got trounced by the scummiest, sleaziest, most paranoid, man to hold office in the 20th Century.

    The Democrats started to look for bucks on Wall Street, now that some unions had abandoned them.

    In 2012, we have a Corporatist Democratic Party, a wholly-owned Wall Street subsidiary in the Republican Party, and unions marginalized to the point of near extinction.

    And here we sit, not only still fighting the battles of the 1960's, but of the 1860's.

    And all because Humphrey lost, the Muskie "cried," and McGovern was the Democratic nominee against Nixon and his "Southern Strategy." And, of course, picking poor Eagleton didn't help George McGovern, either.

    McGovern was too good for this country then.
    And he picked a fine time to get the feck out of it, since this experiment at representative democracy may soon end. Badly.

    RIP, Senator McGovern.

  • Robert Nagle on October 22, 2012 11:54 AM:

    Good analysis overall, but a grammar nitpick. "particularly impressionable young folk like I was at the time". You are using "like" to be a conjunction, but standard usage is for it to be used as a preposition only. Substitute "as", and everything will be peachy.

    (For the record, this is the very first time I have ever corrected grammar online. But it really grates on me).

  • sjw on October 22, 2012 11:55 AM:

    Something I didn't realize until yesterday as I was reading up about McGovern's passing: the press played an important role in his defeat in 1972. Instead of pushing on the Watergate stuff that summer, the MSM enjoyed the presidential campaign as a paid junket. Naturally enough I connected that factoid with the MSM's role in Gore's defeat in 2000 as it exaggerated Gore's character and left Shrub alone, and this year as the MSM proves itself pretty much unable to deal with Romney's torrent of lies.

    I voted for McGovern in '72. Partly it was driven by McGovern's anti-war stance, but I could also see what a slimeball Nixon was. Romney is in Nixon's league.

  • John on October 22, 2012 11:56 AM:

    Humphrey, 1968 - 42.7%
    Stevenson, 1956 - 42.0%
    Goldwater, 1964 - 38.5%

    And surely the fact that Nixon got only slightly higher a percentage of the vote is relevant?

  • SadOldVet on October 22, 2012 12:05 PM:

    So Ed, you worked for the McGovern campaign!

    I knew if I learned enough that there would be something I liked in your history.

  • hornblower on October 22, 2012 12:07 PM:

    Cg, I think you are too pessimistic. There are so many good things that have happened in my lifetime that I never immagined: the Cold War ended, they got John Mitchell, Steinbrenner got suspened and they rebuilt the Yankees and a black President was elected. I'm not sure of the order of importance but they all make me hopeful for my kids and grandkids future.

  • ceenik on October 22, 2012 12:21 PM:

    1972 was the first presidential election after the voting age was lowered to 18. McGovern's campaign was a baptism by fire for this new cohort of voters, myself among them. Tricky Dick's landslide re-election sounded a death knell for sixies-style optimism.

  • Anonymous on October 22, 2012 12:32 PM:

    cund - Good point that "some unions" deserted the Democratic party, because because sometimes cause and effect is indeed sequential.

    Specifically, it was George Meany that did most of the desertion, with white male unions resisting an expansion of civil rights to women and minorities. It was the "Archie Bunker" types that started leaving the Democratic party, later to become the Reagan Democrats.

    That was when the Democrats started chasing corporate money. And that was when big corporations started killing unions because no one was stopping them.

    Well, George Meany, how did that work out for you? You cut your nose off to spite your face.

  • Randy Wilson on October 22, 2012 1:05 PM:

    I cast my first vote for president for George McGovern in 1972, and not for one millisecond in the decades since then have I ever regretted it or thought it was the wrong thing to do.

  • Doug on October 22, 2012 4:20 PM:

    Thank you, Anonymous @ 12:32 PM for connecting the dots between the decline of unions and the rise of Reagan "Democrats".

  • low-tech cyclist on October 22, 2012 4:33 PM:

    Well, George Meany, how did that work out for you? You cut your nose off to spite your face.

    If only George Meany were the only one paying the price of that bad decision.

    But to be honest, his bad call had widespread support. Read all about the Hard Hat Riot of May 8, 1970, for instance. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_Hat_Riot

  • JackD on October 22, 2012 5:02 PM:

    There was also that silliness about giving every American citizen $1,000. Made him look silly to many people.

  • Rich on October 22, 2012 5:18 PM:

    A train wreck of a campaign and candidate. The Eagleton affair demonstrated ineptitude on multile levels. Even early on he was known for losing audiences and weak applause lines at the end. had I been old enough he would have had my vote but w-o enthusiasm.

  • Rick B on October 22, 2012 6:52 PM:

    Someone wrote a day or so ago that FDR did not create a Democratic labor opposition to the capitalists. He created a coalition in which both labor and capital worked together to build an economy and a culture. (I forget who wrote that and I can't find it again but it rings very true to me.) That coalition ended with the Nixon Southern strategy which capped the success of the Civil Rights Movement followed by Reagan's "businessman's crusade against the New Deal" (See 'Invisible Hands' by Kim Phillips-Fein.) It is my opinion that Reagan was General Electric's candidate for President. Jack Welch demonstrated their contiinued power when he got into the news with his truculence the other day.

    The collapse of the FDR coalition and the rise of the right to dominating power have greatly weakened America. The key, in my opinion, is the centralization of power in ideologically right-wing wealthy capitalists and the removal of balancing power in the unions. The series of increasingly bad economic 'Panics' beginning with the Savings and Loan Crisis in the 80's (a direct result of the Vietnam War and Nixon's disastrous economic policies) led to the Wall Street Collapse in 2008. But it also led to the failure of the middle class to receive the economic rewards of their productivity after 1980.

    Capitalism as an economic basis with strong support by labor created the most powerful economy and society in the world. Capitalism as a dominant governing philosophy has killed that. The Reagan government destroyed the effectiveness of labor when it killed the Air Traffic Controllers Union. The Wall Street Banks, the large monopoly businesses, and the ideological intellectual - propaganda arm of organizations like AEI have together worked to destroy America as a unified nation. Instead we are reverting to a class oriented nation with the upper class aristocracy using its power to suck the wealth from everyone else.

    The Bush-Cheney-Rove administration supported by Greenspan at the Federal Reserve essentially exposed the total failure of the conservative movement, but the money they have and the way they have packed the judiciary may have left them with enough power to survive the Great Recession which they caused.

    In the early twentieth century Argentina was one of the top 10 economies in the world. Then right-wingers took over, and they have failed as an economy ever since, going from instability to further instability. That's what is also happening to the U.S.

    By the way, McGovern's idea of giving $1000 to every American was refined and adopted as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Same idea but EIT was championed by right-wingers, with the refinement that you had to work to get it.

  • Rick B on October 22, 2012 7:15 PM:

    If you want to know why the white labor unions abandoned the FDR coalition its explained in critical race theory. It's called White Privilege.

    Historically the white Southern Planters who dominated the southern economy set the rules to give a minor set of advantages, mostly economic, to people just because they were white. Being white became a form of 'property.' Historically in the South this also meant having separate white and black unions, so the managers could play them off against each other. The Right to Work laws were really just a refinement of the racial separation. In Right to Work states employers can always break up any coalition of labor.

    But the key to White Privilege was the idea that being white really had some essential inherent advantage, not just advantages given by government. So the police focused on black teenagers especially, and in fact still do. It's part of the culture of policing.

    This is a set of beliefs maintained by the aristocratic upper class because their social position depends on it. It really is a form of property which is inherited. Just like ownership of any form of property, it is entirely socially created.

  • Rick B on October 22, 2012 7:17 PM:

    The advantages given to Whites were mostly social, not economic. Sorry. The wealthy don't give money away if they can help it.

  • Mitch on October 22, 2012 7:55 PM:

    @Rick B

    Lots of good stuff in your posts, my friend. Thank you for that.

    "In the early twentieth century Argentina was one of the top 10 economies in the world. Then right-wingers took over ..."

    This reminds me of my favorite argument to make towards my conservative friends (the ones who are capable of more than slogan-filled rage, anyway).

    I say to them, "Find me one nation—just one, in the modern world or in the whole of history—that followed the ideas being put forth by the GOP today, and was successful, stable and pleasant. Find one nation that followed your advice, and did not have gross inequality among the haves and have-nots, safe and productive working conditions, economic opportunity for it's citizens and security for the vulnerable and elderly. If you can find even one such nation, then we can talk."

    Nobody has ever responded.

    Also, you are totally correct about White Privilge. As a white guy from the South, I have seen White Privilege from both the inside and outside, and it is ugly. There are folks in my hometown who still hate and insult me for having dated a beautiful, brilliant young lady (who happened to be black) during High School, more than fifteen years ago.

    They honestly believe that they are superior. Morally, intellectually and socially. Nevermind that my ex-gf ended up with an outstanding education and an amazing job at a major university (and is still one of my closest friends). Meanwhile the "superior" white folks back home are lucky if they do not need food stamps, or to have their job at Wal-Mart.

    Ah, humanity.

  • 4jkb4ia on October 23, 2012 12:47 PM:

    This is really, really well done. The obvious conclusion at George McGovern's death is that the trauma of his loss helped to kill the kind of liberalism that he represented, which had genuine roots in the New Deal and before. The Obama Administration promised a kind of politics that would transcend this but often seems like a struggle to retain the very idea of liberalism as something that can motivate the American people. Obama has gifts and powers in retaining this idea that Harry Reid just doesn't have.

  • 4jkb4ia on October 23, 2012 12:49 PM:

    It took reading Nixonland in 2010 for me to see McGovern as anything other than a loser. Carter is the first president that I remember.