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.
Then in 1971, McGovern, along with Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, introduced an amendment that would advance the peace movement, put Nixon on the defense and contribute to the actual collapse of Congressional support for the war in the next few years. It also would be the platform of his presidential campaign, a direct result of the rising power of the peace movement at the time. Though failing that year, the proposal helped unravel the Imperial Presidency and assert the power of Congress—and the public—over decisions of war and peace.
But McGovern faced a perilous journey inside and outside his well-planned, well-exercised journey towards the presidency. On the inside, Nixon was secretly and illegally conspiring against the democratic process and the Democracy Party itself. Relying on his experience during McCarthyism when he was vice president, Nixon launched the strategy of destruction that ended in Watergate. Fortunately, Nixon misread the times, believing that the fifties could be replayed in the sixties. On the outside, Nixon and Kissinger rained death from the skies and invaded Cambodia as Nixon staged the gradual withdrawal of US troops, apparently believing he could “wind down” the peace movement but not the war. He was wrong. The peace movement surged between 1970 and 1972, broadening the potential base for a McGovern candidacy.
Between the media’s hesitancy and Nixon’s frantic efforts to cover up Watergate, the scandal did not burst into public attention until after the November 1972 election. Nixon manipulated Kissinger to manipulate public opinion that October with the hint that “peace is at hand.” It is forgotten, or quietly ignored, that McGovern had an enormous impact on the final ending of the Vietnam War.
According to historian Robert Dallek, the paranoid Nixon had “premonitions of being ousted” if his Watergate secrets came out before the election (Nixon and Kissinger, Partners in Power). At the time, 48 percent of Americans in a Gallup Survey knew “nothing” about the scandal, while 81 percent favored a candidate committed to ending the war.
With Watergate hidden, “Vietnam was the one issue Nixon saw jeopardizing his election,” Dallek writes. He was “afraid of an October surprise engineered by McGovern and Hanoi that could cost him the election,” based on the possibility that Hanoi would invite McGovern to Vietnam and turn over a substantial number of American POWs “indicating that the Democrat would be better able to reach a settlement.” A settlement before the election, Nixon noted to Henry Kissinger, would be “a great confirmation of McG’s campaign for peace” and would contain “a high risk of severely damaging the US domestic scene.” In the end, Nixon had Kissinger offer the “peace is at hand” statement to kill any surge for McGovern, moved to prevent any settlement before the election, and at the same time planned the B-52 bombing of Hanoi during Christmas.
That fall, Jane Fonda, along with others, and myself were engaged in a 100-city campaign to end the war and defeat Nixon. Hundreds of thousands of people became involved and local coalitions were built everywhere, but especially in seven “swing” states. That movement became a force in backing the congressional termination of the war two years later. In our analysis, the peace movement had forced Nixon into his illegal Watergate strategy, and Watergate had created the opportunity to end the war at last. The strategy was right. At least we knew that McGovern’s campaign would keep the issue of Vietnam alive domestically and force the US toward withdrawal. How little we knew. Fearing our effectiveness drove Nixon deeper into hiding, not toward the exits. But it was all we could do.
Why did McGovern lose so overwhelmingly, plunging us into the disastrous Nixon presidency? There are those who drew the misleading lesson that the “McGovern Democrats” were too far to the left, too “softon defense” to ever win the presidency. That lesson took root in Democratic politics and has lasted to this day. McGovern’s own campaign manager, Gary Hart, swiftly developed a “smart on defense” strategy to immunize himself during his later presidential run. The Clintons were scarred by the experience as well, distancing themselves from the man who had pulled Bill Clinton into his first presidential campaign. Even today, President Obama positions himself as a hawkish centrist far removed from the ghost of George McGovern. To this day, the Democrats have never recognized a peace caucus in the way they have accommodated every other issue-based interest group important to the party’s success. The result is a dangerous imbalance in the mainstream political spectrum of forces, marginalizing the voices of peace within the system and disenfranchising the peace movement as an outcast grouping.
The true history of 1972 is more complicated and may never be unraveled. McGovern made a disastrous mistake in choosing Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate without knowing of his long treatment for mental illness. I remember sitting on a Venice living room floor with Jane when we heard the news, and immediately feeling the deflation of all our buoyancy, the sense that McGovern was doomed. As long as Watergate was concealed, Nixon would have won the 1972 election anyway, but by a more competitive margin, and even been forced into a more rapid peace settlement.
A deeper reason for the setback was the antagonism rippling through the left-of-center forces themselves. The AFL-CIO simply hated the triumphant McGovernites, picked up their marbles and backed Nixon to the hilt. While this was partly about petulance, it was also about power, the threat of a rising peace movement lapping against the closed citadel of the national security establishment. Even Jimmy Carter, then the governor of Georgia, was leading a campaign to stop McGovern.
Within the ranks of the movements there was more polarization. Leaders like John Lewis and Julian Bond had left SNCC, and the vacuum was being filled by either Black Panthers or street gangs like the Crips and Bloods, all while Jesse Jackson was replacing Mayor Richard Daley as an elected delegate to McGovern’s Democratic convention. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were visiting the convention floor while crazed “Zippies” accused them of selling out, while sinister Nixon operatives and columnists like Robert Novak spread a false rumor that McGovern advocated legalizing marijuana. SDS was subdividing into Marxist-Leninist factions who were largely AWOL from the massive peace movement being led by liberal McCarthy supporters like Sam Brown. Rennie Davis, the premier anti-war organizer of the era, had become a follower of a 14-year-old guru in India. Vietnam Veterans Against the War was being set up on conspiracy changes. In other words, Nixon’s “plumbers” and the COINTEL program were at high tide. (This was anarchism of the right overwhelming anarchism of the left; for several years, I was accused of “burning buses” in Miami, when I was never there.)
The destabilization program, partly spontaneous and partly planned, worked in the end. The cold war establishment was protected from McGovernism, or so they thought. In fact, George McGovern was a premature figure, an usher to history’s course. Nixon fell, as did Saigon, by 1975. The American troops came home. Tens of thousands of American war resisters in Canada were given amnesty by Jimmy Carter. Abortion was legalized the year after McGovern’s defeat. Eleven states decriminalized marijuana in the seventies. The immense human suffering was largely forgotten as the conservatives turned their attention to defeating the “Vietnam Syndrome”, cultural disease they attributed to the sixties and McGovern.
McGovern was the prophet who paid the price. He was a minister’s son who knew the Devil, a World War II hero who remembered Hiroshima and Dresden, a populist reformer who mistrusted Wall Street, and a kindly gentleman who welcomed the chaos of the sixties into his life, then watched so many of his “kids” abandon him to become the New Men and Women of Power in posts that his movement had made possible. Keeping any bitterness to himself, he lived on to oppose the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and to call upon the Democratic Party to live up to its best traditions.
Even today the crippling purge of McGovernism from the mainstream political culture goes on. Millions have suffered as a result of the mass myopia left from the purge of McGovern’s peace perspective from what C. Wright Mills called the “crackpot realism” passing for establishment discourse. Who will take up McGovern’s prophetic role now? And if no one does, how long will it be before false peace becomes a consuming hell? At that point, we should know that we have been warned. At the height of the Vietnam crisis, I remember standing by McGovern as he explained to a Washington gathering, in that sincere Plains voice, “If you stir up the hornet’s next, you better be ready to be stung by the bees.”
George McGovern for The Nation:
Questions for Mr. Bush  | April 4, 2002
The Reason Why  | April 3, 2003
Patriotism Is Nonpartisan  | March 24, 2005 Gene McCarthy  | December 15, 2005
The Legacy of Four Women  with Rep. Jim McGovern | December 21, 2005
An Impartial Interrogation of George W. Bush  | January 17, 2007
The Nation Profile:
McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds  by Arthur I. Blaustein and Peter T. Sussman | October 16, 1972