Everyone who knew George McGovern will tell you—I heard this first from George Will many years ago—that McGovern was one of the most gentle, decent persons you’d ever encounter in American politics. “He comes on like Muzak,” James Jackson Kilpatrick wrote of him, “which descendeth like the gentle dew.” But McGovern’s name will always be associated, rightly, with the extreme leftward lurch of the Democratic Party.
He said some truly stupid things over the years, such as his carelessly chosen words in a Playboy interview implying that Ho Chi Minh could rightly be compared to George Washington, or his blaming the Cold War chiefly on the United States and the West, writing in his autobiography that “Without excusing the aggressive behavior of the Soviets in Eastern Europe after 1945, I have always believed that we not only overreacted to it but indeed helped to trigger it by our own post-World War II fears.” He added that “The challenge to the free world from Communism is no longer relevant,” and “I don’t like Communism, but I don’t think we have any great obligation to save the world from it.” While Nixon and other Republicans wore American flag lapel pins, the McGovernites found appeals to patriotism repellent, and wore the flag—if at all—upside down. Theodore White observed that “At McGovern headquarters, the word itself, ‘patriotism,’ was a code word for intolerance, war, deception. . . and phrases like ‘peace with honor’ actually did make them gag.” McGovern’s big spending domestic policy ideas were just as bad. “This man’s ideas aren’t liberal,” huffed union stalwart (and faithful Democrat-backer) George Meany of the AFL-CIO; “This man’s ideas are crazy.” It was the first time the AFL-CIO sat out a fall campaign.
But was McGovern really a McGovernite?
While the 1972 convention did for Democrats what the 1964 convention did for Republicans, there are some good reasons to exempt McGovern from all the charges. It was McGovern’s misfortune that he could not control the “Movement” he rode to the nomination. With a few notable exceptions, McGovern caved in to the demands of many of the liberal interest groups he used on the road to the nomination, acquiring along the way a number of positions that would haunt him in the general election campaign. While he held typical naïve liberal sentimentalist views, this former World War II bomber pilot (and winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross) was no purebread pacifist. “I am not a pacifist,” he would protest late in the campaign; “It’s a dangerous world, and some people only understand force.” Let us also remember McGovern’s post-political career, where his experience as a failed entrepreneur led him to criticize many of the regulations he had supported in office.
The paradox of the 1972 McGovern campaign, Theodore White observed, was that it became impossible to tell whether McGovern was the creation of his movement, or its creator. “We were always subject to this pressure from the cause people,” McGovern’s campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz told White after the election. “If I had it to do all over again, I’d learn when to tell them to go to hell.” McGovern himself later protested that he was not a McGovernite, and admitted that when he opened the party’s doors (through the quota-based delegate rules changes he promulgated after the 1968 convention), 20 million Democrats walked out.
McGovern was unable to counter the image that Republican Senator Hugh Scott indelibly attached to him as “the candidate of acid, amnesty, and abortion.” But on the last issue—abortion—we can see how radical the Democratic Party has become since. McGovern’s position at the beginning of the campaign was that abortion was a matter that should be left to state legislatures (which is the default Republican position today), and although he resisted attempts at including a pro-abortion plank in the Democratic platform in 1972, he gradually conceded to the pro-abortion views of insurgent feminists. (Muskie and Humphrey, it is worth adding, both opposed abortion. “I am not for it,” said Humphrey. “It compromises the sanctity of life,” said Muskie. The Rev. Jesse Jackson had an even tougher opinion at that time, describing abortion “as too nice a word for something cold, like murder.”) While McGovern conceded under pressure from feminists, he wouldn’t embrace abortion-on-demand. There must be regulating legislation, McGovern thought: “You can’t just let anybody walk in and request an abortion.”
And that Miami convention!! Here’s a few excerpts from my chapter about 1972 from volume 1 of The Age of Reagan:
“The 1972 Democratic convention,” sociologist Lewis Feuer wrote, “was the first in American history that could be called the ‘Convention of the Intellectuals.’ Miami saw the transformation of the Democratic into the Intellectuals’ Party.” There were no farmers in the Iowa delegation, only a handful of Poles or Italians in the Illinois delegation, no elected official among the Virginia delegation, while nine members of the New York delegation were associated with a gay rights group. Two welfare mothers were on the Washington DC delegation, and two Native Americans (the media still called them “Indians”) anointed the delegation from McGovern’s home state of South Dakota. Tip O’Neill quipped that the Massachusetts delegation “looked like the cast of ‘Hair.’” (O’Neill skipped the convention.) California’s delegation included actress Shirley MacLaine, who remarked that her delegation “looked like a couple of high schools, a grape boycott, a Black Panther rally, and four or five politicians who walked in the wrong door.” She meant it as a compliment. One old time Democrat remarked that the key decisions were still made in smoke-filled rooms, “only the smoke smelled different.” The Village Voice ratified this observation: “There was enough grass to satisfy Man O’War.” . .
But in the year of the runaway convention, “open politics” required that other candidates, or their enthusiasts, receive equal time to plead their case directly to the convention floor. Feminists demanded that a woman’s name be placed in nomination, and every nutball constituency and street theater artist got into the act. Among the names placed in nomination for the Vice Presidency were Ralph Nader, Cesar Chavez, Jerry Rubin, Benjamin Spock, Mao Tse-Tung, and even Archie Bunker. By the time the circus was put down, it was nearly 3 a.m. Fewer than 4 million households were still tuned in at that hour to hear McGovern’s acceptance speech, in which he unveiled his signature theme, “Come home America.” It was prime time only in Guam, and past deadline for most of the morning papers. One American who stayed up late to hear McGovern’s speech was Nixon, who shook his head in amazement at the incompetence the spectacle revealed. Nixon remarked that the “scene had the air of a college skit that had gotten carried away with itself and didn’t know how to stop.”
The fevers of the convention floor found expression in the 26,000-word platform the convention produced. Joyce Milton described the 1972 platform as “a liberation movement wish list,” while A. James Reichley argued that it signified that “The Democrats have now chosen to be the party of discontent. Farewell forever to Hubert Humphrey and the politics of joy!” “We are not sure if the values we have lived by for generations have any meaning left,” said the introduction. One thing the 1972 Democrats did believe in, however, was rights—lots of them. “The Democratic Party in 1972 is committed to resuming the march toward equality,” which entailed enumerating the claims and demands that various constituencies called “rights.” Included were “The right to be different, to maintain a cultural or ethnic heritage or lifestyle, without being forced into a compelled homogeneity. . . The rights of people who lack rights: Children, the mentally retarded, mentally ill and prisoners, to name some . . . [and] the development of new rights of two kinds: Rights to the service itself and rights to participate in the delivery process.” The platform also called for quotas and the expansion of bilingual education.
Oh, while we’re revisiting old liberal greatest hits from the 1970s in the midst of the supposed “war on women” today, how about McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart’s explanation that year of why there weren’t more women in top campaign positions: “Women don’t have the experience or ability to organize. . . Do you lower your standards in the midst of a campaign like in the midst of brain surgery and try to equalize social ills?” Give that man an Al Campanis Award! (You can supply your own Gary Hart jokes.) Doesn’t seem like much has changed the eyes of liberals, as can be seen by the “Life of Julia” understanding of what it means to be a woman in America today.