McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds
The Machine reared its head next as an honest-to-God Prairie Populist and, after a few more electoral victories, an Extremist, a radical in sheep's clothing, a spoiler—indeed, a "Goldwater of the Left." He would, said the political analysts, have to "prove himself" (and a cynic might well ask, "To whom?," since all this time he was amassing a healthy winning record at the polls, the traditional way for a candidate to "prove himself").
Soon enough, however, the Also-Ran-Protest-CandidateStalking-Horse-Machine-Radical became "front-running Sen. George McGovern," and with it came a whole new set of personality traits. For now the nice guy with the right ideas of December became the "waffler" of June. No one knew what a "waffler' really was, but nevertheless it was clear to everyone that McGovern was one. And, coincidentally, all the political analysts who were convinced before the first primary that McGovern hadn't a prayer of being nominated were now knocking on the doors of smoke-filled rooms across the nation, searching for any scent they might find of a "Stop McGovern Movement." The press was largely responsible for ballooning anti-McGovern sentiment within the Democratic Party into a Stop McGovern Movement with capital letters.
But McGovern was not to be stopped, and as that became increasingly apparent, the image shifted to "McGovern the Inexorable." He moved into Miami Beach, as the San Francisco Chronicle described him editorially, as "the political John the Baptist with an evangelistic light of reform in his eyes." In its post-convention issue, Time picked up the image, describing McGovern as a man with a "Messianic drive .... In Miami Beach, it was like St. John the Baptist on Collins Avenue." From stalking horse to the Apocalypse in less than 100 days.
The convention brought the McGovern story full circle. The first-ballot victor became once again the predestined loser—this time against Nixon. All those newsmen who had seen- their prophecies shattered in the primaries went double-or-nothing for the general election, describing McGovern (ad nauseam) as a weak candidate with enough Achilles heels to propel a centipede—he lacked labor support (read Meany), old-time Democratic support (read Daley), financial aid (wealthy Wall Streeters), and once again, popular support (read Gallup).
That, broadly, is an accurate portrait of the many McGoverns we have been treated to in the last nine months, but the amazing thing about McGovern's many faces is how widespread the myths became. It is as if some flipped-out media freak periodically threw a rumor into, the puddle of public domain and watched the rippies spread through all the news channels of America. Take for example, the journalistic gymnastics that occurred with the myth of "The Prairie Populist." In Time, Life, Newsweek, the major dailies and on the networks, the public was treated to "in depth analyses" ranging from the sexual interpretation of the Populist psyche to whether or not the movement in Georgia under Tom Watson was more Populist than the Grange movement in Wisconsin or Nebraska under La Follette or Norris. The New York Times Magazine commissioned an eminent historian to trace the development of various Populist trends in American history, supposedly to provide the philosophical basis for McGovern's political stances.
Perhaps the most compelling image was that of organization—what came to be known as the McGovern Machine. This alliterative cliché became, in but a few short weeks, so pervasive that one could be excused for thinking that, McGovern never won a primary—they were all won by the "McGovern Machine." That machine was—depending on whom you read—a phalanx of teeny boppers large enough to people a PTA's collective nightmare; a computerized army of coldblooded young technicians; a tight circle of crafty pros directing a movement of naive youngsters; a cadre of New Leftist "theoreticians"; or a religious crusade—the radicals' answer to Billy Graham.
In trying to find a handy explanation for the primary victories they couldn't understand and hadn't predicted, the political analysts grasped at the "Machine" myth. Looking more closely at McGovern in the early flush of each primary victory, reporters would see first the state apparatus—the "out-front" part o the campaign that was most readily visible—mistake it for the candidate himself, and launch into long "explainers" about why McGovern "really won" this state, resulting in such journalistic drivel as the following:
San Francisco Chronicle: "Fueled on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the youthful volunteers were out in force last week as the pre-primary campaigning sputtered towards its penultimate week in New Hampshire."
Joseph Alsop: "Wisconsin and Massachusetts did not in fact prove that McGovern had suddenly developed an irresistible attraction for the American voter. They proved the worth of good organization in primaries."
Newsweek: The McGovern campaigns in New York and California "will involve mobilizing a force so vast that the McGovern campaign may take its place among the major land armies."