What most people never grasped about George McGovern’s run for president forty years ago is that it was the last genuinely open and honest presidential campaign. His landslide defeat in 1972 taught a generation of aspiring young Democrats not to try that again—and they didn’t. McGovern’s quality of earnest candor was deeper than style or politics. This is who he was as a person, not a saint or righteous innocent but constitutionally inclined to say what he thought, believing most people would listen with an open mind or at least they would learn from a truthful discussion of the nation’s condition.
Of course, he was mistaken. Yet I saw him up close when again and again he spoke freely about his views in ways that injured him, set him up for ridicule or contempt. Even the reporters covering his doomed campaign would roll their eyes in disbelief. Me too. Reporters were the cynics and Senator McGovern was the starry-eyed idealist. That was more or less the way we told the story. Looking back after all these years, I feel we missed the essence of George McGovern’s goodness. He was not naïve or ignorant of the hostile context. Given the desperate state of the union, putting hard truths on the table was perhaps the only strategy that might prevail. Anyway, it would be good for the country.
I experienced this as a young reporter for The Washington Post covering the McGovern campaign non-stop. The editors knew I was something of a bleeding heart. But they figured McGovern was a sure loser (they were right) and so it would do no harm if I wrote a lot of sensitive mush (they were right about that too). So I spent the campaign season as one of the “boys on the bus”—two weeks on the road with the candidate, then one week or so back home in DC. We had a lot of fun. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was the tour director.
I was given only one instruction by my editor—do not fall for the reporter’s standard illusion that what was happening day by day on the campaign trail would somehow decide the election results. It didn’t then and it doesn’t now. Knowing this liberated me to skip the thumb-sucking stories on how the horse race was going. Other reporters, watching the big crowds of ecstatic McGovern supporters turn out, would succumb and report that the candidate was finally enjoying a “turnaround.” He might not be a loser after all! My accomplishment was I never fell for that.
But I did sort of fall in love. The candidate was intriguing on a personal level—sweet and brainy and deeply thoughtful, a true and generous teacher. He had a sophisticated world view born of the World War II experience and an open-armed confidence about America and its possibilities that I think of as Midwestern (since I’m Midwestern myself). McGovern’s conviction was liberal optimism and creative thinking could change things for the better. World peace was the core of his optimism. How far-fetched it seems now.
The senator’s character was reflected in his campaign apparatus and the people around him. A little wobbly on organizational skills but a great spirit of mutual good feeling. A favorite pleasure of mine when I was back in DC was dropping by the McGovern national headquarters housed in an old rowhouse on K Street. I literally would go door to door and chat up whoever I came across among the people managing his campaign—writing speeches, raising money, plotting schedules. There were no security guards at the building nor even a formal receptionist (though they did have a daycare center for their kids).