George McGovern had been on my mind in the days before he died. I’d decided to read Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 for election season and was struck by the fondness that even somebody as brutally disillusioned as Mr Gonzo felt for the man from South Dakota. I became fascinated by the ’72 election while researching my book — I also recommend Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus and Rick Perlstein’s epic Nixonland – because of McGovern’s unusual decency and the scale of his defeat. For the US left it was like the end of The Empire Strikes Back. He lost to Nixon – Nixon! – by a historic landslide, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
How to explain such a crushing loss? Was it mainly down to the mishandling of running mate Thomas Eagleton’s history of mental health problems? The failure of the Youth Vote to turn out in force? The false but potent “amnesty, abortion and acid” slur that alienated a Middle America terrified of any possible return to the chaos of the late 60s? The attempted assassination of George Wallace, which caused him to leave the race and not split the Silent Majority vote? Nixon’s phony promise of imminent peace in Vietnam? McGovern’s own muted charisma and insufficient campaignining skills? All of the above, probably. The insurgent energy that led McGovern to victory in the primaries, overtaking party machine favourites like Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, couldn’t be mimicked on the national stage and in fact put many more cautious voters off. Despite his passionate antiwar views (“I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight”), he was a fairly moderate liberal, but his followers were more radical than America could handle in 1972. (As I explained in this article last week, McGovern’s was the first candidate to inspire benefit gigs by mainstream rock stars.)
Ron Rosenbaum, who covered the campaign, asked over the weekend what might have happened had the Watergate scandal taken off earlier, sunk Nixon’s re-election and spared America the most painful and disenchanting episode in presidential politics. That’s what made McGovern’s defeat a tragedy for the whole country, not just the left.
McGovern knew he would lose but thought he could bank on at least eight states, and he took years to recover from the defeat. Hunter S Thompson’s book ends with a post-election Q&A with McGovern, who seems both shellshocked and dignified, which is a hard combination to pull off. I found this passage moving when I read it a fortnight ago and even moreso today.
HST: In a sense you were running a sixties campaign in the seventies.
McGovern: Yeah… We were running a campaign that might have won in 1968. Might have won. Might have… You know, all of this is speculating, Hunter. I don’t think any of us really know what’s going on. I think there’s always that pendulum action in American politics, and I expect Nixon to run into trouble in the next few years. I think there’s going to be disillusionment over his war settlement. I think the economic problems are not going to get better and the problems in the great cities are going to worsen, and it may be that by ’76 somebody can come along and win on a kind of platform that I was running on in ’72.
HST: I don’t know. It worries me and I’ve noticed the predominant feeling, particlarly among students, seems to be one of bewilderment and despair. What the hell happened and where do we go from here and…
McGovern: Yeah. The letters they’re sending in here, though, are — Jesus, they’re encouraging. That’s what kept my spirits from collapsing. The pendulum did take a big swing but it’s going to come back. I really believe that.
I also like this exchange from a 2006 interview:
Hanging on the wall just outside his office is a beautifully scripted copy of a familair prayer. he pauses to extol the artwork, then rejects the sentiment.
“God,” the prayer begins, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”
“No,” says McGovern, when asked if the prayer represents a personal credo. “I keep trying to change them.”