McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds
In essence, then, McGovern had painstakingly built a new house within the Democratic Party, just as he had done nearly a decade ago in South Dakota. The groundwork had been laid for a national campaign at the grassroots level, a campaign like the ones in South Dakota—from the bottom up with carefully chosen constituencies.
McGovern's father, Joseph, decades earlier, had roamed the Plains personally building churches and establishing congregations and then passing on to another town to start anew, leaving behind him a string of established Methodist congregations. So his son set about building a revived Democratic Party—first in South Dakota, then nationally through the party reform rules, and then in state after state the caucuses, conventions and primaries.
As he hit the primary trail—with all the perseverance of the Rev. Joseph McGovern—what was McGovern's strongest appeal? First, he was not a convert to the antiwar movement. McGovern had been against the war since 1963. He came across therefore as a man of deep conviction. He was also open and honest, relatively new, the architect of party reform. And, too, he was "closer to the people"—of necessity, since having been close to the Kennedys he had no real power in Johnson-Humphrey's Washington and had to find his own power base outside the Senate cloakroom. He fit right into the crusader-cum-underdog pattern. In short, he symbolized what America was looking for after all the political duplicity of the Vietnamese War years.
In explaining his appeal, McGovern's supporters describe him as a sort of "anti-politician." Shirley MacLame, for example, could get away with introducing the candidate—to loud cheers at one rally after another in California—by saying, "George McGovern is not a politician but a political humanist."
Some old-line Democrats, as well as reporters of type and tube, indignantly exclaimed that the McGovern people were "new faces practicing the old politics." That may have been true, but new, or old, they were organized, they were close to their constituency, arid they weren't buying a Muskie, a Lindsay or a Humphrey. A week before the Wisconsin primary, Eugene McCarthy wryly remarked of the McGovern operation: "He has got Kennedy staff and McCarthy followers. That's like having German officers and Irish troops."
So the generals and the troops, playing by the new rule book, built a campaign from the bottom up through the primaries. McGovern coolly plied his trade and gathered his delegates and his crucial momentun—just as he had always done—while the press built its sand castles.
The primary campaign went almost exactly as the McGovern strategists had mapped it—slowly, steadily building a delegate majority and popular momentum in a carefully selected combination of primary states. They carefully sank all the bank shots of their choice.