McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds
A related kind of conventional wisdom deriving from conventional sources made Edmund Muskie the "Democratic front runner," and McGovern the one-issue "also-ran," more than a year before any citizen had a chance to vote on the question. Muskie was the front runner because the press made him the front runner, and so much for the wisdom of the press.
McGovern's base of support, one that had grown substantially in the Vietnamese War years, was not to be measured by familiar means. His base was outside the traditional political power structure; much of his moncy came in dollar bills through the mail, not from the Wall Street kingmakers; his workers came from homes and colleges and factories, not from machine politicians' master lists; his support derived from the blue-collar worker, not the "labor leaders," from the black man and woman, not the "civil rights leaders"; his ideology grew out of voter frustrations and home-grown dissent, not from the party platforms of years past. The few politicians who looked ahead for clues to the future saw the promise of a McGovern candidacy; those who looked back were wrong.
So the press spun its myths while McGovern got his votes. Some hints of truth lurked within every myth, but the real McGovern continued to elude the merchants of information. Now that the dust has settled a bit, it seems well past time to find out a little more about the Democratic nominee for President.
It is common practice for Congressmen and Senators to send Christmas cards to staff members, friends, contributors and other assorted and important constituents. Usually the inside carries a simple Peace on Earth message, and the cover displays a smiling family photo, a water color of a familiar landmark back home, or a picture of the Capitol. Back in 1962, having just been elected Senator by the whopping majority of 597 votes, McGovern sent out a Yuletide greeting with a picture of the White House on the cover. That is highly unusual—apparently, McGovern had set his sights on the Presidency early in his career. In fact, McGovern once told a reporter that, on Election Day, 1956, as he watched the returns mount in his first political race, he dreamed of running for the Presidency.
The meteoric rise which culminated in the "impossible dream" of 1972 becomes much less a puzzle when one analyzes the early political career of George McGovern. Anyone who took the time to trace his political ascension would have realized that he was not simply Mr. Nice Guy, the White Knight or Saint George. He is and always has been a tough, effective, skillful and ambitious politician, whose outstanding characteristic is dogged persistence. The key to McGovern's success in 1972 is rooted in his experiences as executive secretary of South Dakota's Democratic Party in the mid-fifties. What he did in South Dakota during those lonely and backbreaking years he has now repeated in the most recent four years—only this time his vehicle is the National Democratic Party. The main difference is one of scale, but also the fact that he probably had a tougher job cut out for him in 1952, for the state party then was in worse shape even than the National Democratic Party after the 1968 Presidential campaign.
The WASPish residents of Sioux Falls, Rapid City and Aberdeen who dominate South Dakota politics are very often owners of small businesses, salesmen and bankers—the backbone of the Republican Party. But there are also Germans and Swedes who came to farm the land—and who remain less prosperous than the city folk; they brought with them the prairie radicalism of Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota. It was on the latter constituency that McGovern knew he had to build his base.
From 1936 on, the years had been lean for South Dakota Democrats. And, in particular, 1952 was a disastrous year. The Democrats wound up with only two seats in the Statehouse and none in the State Senate. For the next three years George McGovern crisscrossed the state in his jalopy, trying to build a party organization.