McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds
After all the infighting over credentials and platform at Miami Beach, it became obvious to anyone who had listened to him carefully and watched the bargaining of his floor managers that George McGovern was no radical or "Prairie Populist." At worst he was a moderate, and at best a man who seriously wanted to win. It was a point that should have been obvious all along, were it not for the smokescreen put up in the nation's media. McGovern won at the convention not so much because of parliamentary or managerial brilliance but, because he had done his homework—the delegates had come to Miami Beach committed to McGovern and to the changes he represented.
The middle of a campaign is not the time to paint the likeness of any candidate in sharp personal focus, but the outlines of McGovern's personality and style have begun to emerge. His speeches and press conferences tend toward the preacher-teacher style of his early manhood. He employs wit and humor sparingly and doesn't seem very comfortable when he does. His imagination at times seems as flat as the Great Plains, though his speeches often belie that impression. He combines honesty, sensitivity, and deeply felt, convictions with pragmatism and deftness. He seems to be in control of the tensions that exist in a man who consciously attempts to combine idealism with realism. He is, in short, a politician who has his ear to the ground, his sensitivities intact, who wants to win and appears to have enormous talent.
One distinguishing quality about George McGovern deserves special mention. An occupational hazard of most people who enter public life is that they become enamored of their own rhetoric. Hubert Humphrey is an example, in extremis. McGovern is short-winded, direct and economical on the stump. One is struck, too, by the fact that he is a serious listener—another natural asset in a country that has been "oversold" on everything from antacids to Asian wars. The "consumer" is striking back in 1972—he wants to be heard, not told. This rising popular impulse fits hand in glove with McGovern's personal style and political ideology.
McGovern has managed to crystallize the resentments of the voter of 1972. He has symbolized the underdog—the candid voice of dissent—as he has reasoned and preached the inadequacies of current governmental policies. He has symbolized, too, the inadequacies of government by press release. His is a campaign characterized often, but not consistently, by open decision making—"too open" at times for his own political good—and moralistic directness. And he has listened.
This is an ideal formula for winning a limited number of primaries, but it remains to be seen if it is also an adequate springboard from which to win a general election and then to govern. McGovern's attack until now has been more effective politically than administratively. Whether he can translate the primary victories into a successful general election victory, raise his policies to programs, and transform his advisers into governmental managers are still matters for speculation.
The Eagleton affair is perhaps the most striking example of McGovern's administrative immaturity, and McGovern must bear responsibility for it. As a candidate for President he can delegate work, but not responsibility. All the excuses by Gary Hart about not having enough time or people to check out Eagleton are nonsense. McGovern should, at the very least, have spent a couple of hours talking with Eagleton.
By no stretch of the imagination is George McGovern the radical the press painted him—he's not even a Populist, except insofar as he built his campaign close to the people and the issues that he encountered at a grass-roots level. He is otherwise very much the traditional liberal who believes in incremental changes, with power and control flowing from the top. A major problem for McGovern is that although he has a firm grasp of foreign policy and a deep intuitive sense of America's abiding frustrations, he has had little personal experience in dealing with economic and sociala problems, particularly as they affect urban centers and minority groups. Lacking a frame of reference, he has compounded the problem by becoming excessively dependent on academic theorists who tend to spin off their own concoctions, usually with little attention to tough practical solutions. Perhaps after he gets burned a few times—as in the welfare caper—McGovern will shake off some of the awe and reverence he has for academics (of which he is one).