George McGovern’s 1972 campaign was the first presidential contest I became involved in. My friend Al Giordano was working as a McGovern volunteer and he enlisted his friends. We papered Larchmont with McGovern stickers and posters. When the Nixon motorcade drove down the Boston Post Road we formed a loud, anti-Nixon demonstration on the sidewalk. It was my first taste of a losing candidate. In fact, until Bill Clinton (a candidate I did not like and did not want to vote for) won in 1992 I had never voted for a presidential winner. Supporting losing candidates is a fact of life for Democrats after Johnson. Most of my losing votes have been for men I only grudgingly supported. Had I been able to vote in 1972 that would not have been the case. I would have loved to vote for McGovern. He would have made a great president. At least, if he had been able to accomplish what he stood for. Peace. Peace between the races. Peace in the world. Security for the poor.
McGovern was no starry-eyed idiot. He had strong moral values. He was not a pacifist. After leaving politics he fought for bringing clean water to the developing world. He said that this simple, inexpensive improvement in the lives of the world’s poorest people would make a radical difference in their health and quality of life. His objection to Vietnam was not that all wars were wrong. It was that the Vietnam war was wrong.
Losing the 1972 election was probably not as catastrophic for America as losing in 1968. The catastrophe was already in progress. It was more evidence of the same. Nixon pursued his strategy of using race to divide the Democratic Party and break its grip on power. McGovern is usually viewed as the Barry Goldwater of his party, the unelectable extremist who demonstrated to the country that the Democrats were off the wall radicals, the advocates of Abortion, Acid and Amnesty. By tying McGovern to Abbie Hoffman and by extension the whole Democratic Party the Republicans would go on to win election after election. All of the Nixonian tricks would stay in play. Reagan would add a few of his own. The culmination was the presidency of George W. Bush, the worst in the country’s history.
McGovern is remembered for his stance against the war. He was right. He was an honest and a good man who was ready to lose rather than lie or compromise his beliefs. And on the war the country was with him. But he was not going to get elected because sometimes people want an unlikeable son of a bitch who confirms their worst fears and prejudices rather than one who inspires their best hopes and convictions.
McGovern’s lasting importance, and his impact on history, was not being the biggest loser in a presidential race. It was rather as head of the McGovern commission, tasked after the 1968 debacle in Chicago with reforming the nomination process. He opened up the party to women and minorities. He assured that candidates would be nominated through the primary process and not by county power brokers. It is easy to forget that Humphrey won the nomination in 1968 without running in any primaries. It is true Kennedy and McCarthy were running in primaries, and it is also true Kennedy might have won the nomination that way. But it would still have been because his primary victories would have proved to the party big shots that he could win an election. And it would also be because many of them were still committed to the Kennedys. One of those men would have been Mayor Daley. Mayor Daley of course supported Nixon in 1972.
The party would not be better off today had McGovern not won the nomination. He won the nomination largely because he rewrote those rules. Barak Obama would not be president today were it not for George McGovern and the liberal activist wing of the Democratic Party. Of course, Obama is not a progressive or liberal really, he’s a pragmatic centrist. Those are the people who get elected, mostly. They just weren’t going to do so if they were black. Opening up the Democratic Party to minorities changed it forever. It changed electoral math in this country forever. The changes continue to this day. Remember Hillary and the wooing of the super delegates?
McGovern lost a battle, but culturally anyway he won the war. America today is more McGovern’s America than Nixon’s.