The Democratic Party leadership, and political historians in general, do not look kindly on losers. Having been successful for most of their lives, but having fallen short of the presidency, leaves the losers in a permanent purgatory of derision, like B-movie actors. It is depressing for them, and a loss of valuable lessons for the rest of us, except of course for the most American of lessons: Win! As Leo Durocher said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you an idiot.”
The Democrats and historians threw George McGovern under the bus. Now it is time for his resurrection, in a search for history’s lessons.
It was a time unlike now, a time that may not come again. The New Left, which had a massive and militant base, remained unpopular with mainstream public opinion. As Seth Rosenfeld’s extraordinary new history reveals, both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would benefit from revulsion at “filthy” Berkeley radicals to become future presidents. At the same time, the tide of sentiment was turning, and even some leaders of the establishment were rethinking Vietnam and its corrosive effects on American politics.
It was a time when leaders and activists from the emerging social movements often were on close terms with Democratic politicians who were considering presidential runs. Many of us lobbied Congress to end funding for Vietnam, traversed the halls of Congress and campaign trails freely and were visitors to the homes of leading candidates and members of Congress.
The Democratic Party appeared to be farther to the left than any time before or since, but in an extremely divided society. The most serious contradictions were between organized labor and the “peaceniks,” feminists and the rainbow of the counterculture. The AFL-CIO was very much in the invisible hands of the CIA in its cold war foreign policy, and thus unable to embrace a shift from Vietnam to domestic priorities. But at the same time the AFL-CIO was losing its powerful grip on the machinery of the Democratic Party to the younger forces of the peace movement, the feminist movement, the emerging Earth Day environmentalists, the students and groups within organized labor like the farmworkers.
Enter George McGovern, who came from the Great Plains populist, farmer-labor tradition whose needs could not be met in the ascendancy of cold war spending. (Hubert Humphrey shared the same tradition, but had followed temptation into the military madness of Lyndon Johnson’s faltering administration.) McGovern’s way was paved by the 1967–68 campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, which ended with the Democratic Party not only defeated by Nixon but in a state of crisis and division.
Coming out of the 1968 disaster, McGovern somehow became chair of a commission in charge of rewriting the fundamental rules of the party. Though defined later as a wooly-headed liberal dreamer, McGovern was shrewd enough, and mainstream enough, to carry out an internal rules revolution that would make his nomination possible in 1972. The 1968 crackup also allowed huge numbers of pragmatic movement activists, like the young McCarthy campaigners, Rev. Jesse Jackson and other emerging black leaders, the UFW, Gloria Steinem and the National Organization for Women, Bill Clinton, David Mixner and countless unnamed others.
Those rules required that virtually half the delegates be women and that nominations be settled primarily by state-by-state voting, opening space for activists to have an internal impact on the party. The AFL-CIO was opposed. Every since, the party establishment has tended to whittle away at the potential role of the grassroots that McGovern made possible.