Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Voice in the Wilderness

"... George McGovern was about to have his moment. The moment was 2:48 in the morning. ... [T]he audience for his speech had dropped from 17,400,000 to 3,600,000. Yet he was speaking beautifully. He had sucked up from his experience in one of the longest campaigns in American history a knowledge of precisely those keys of emotion he himself could touch best, and the organ keys he played now were poetic and evangelical."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1972"

From the rear–view mirror perspective of American history, George McGovern was the Democrats' version of Barry Goldwater.

He went down to defeat in a landslide of historic proportions, as Goldwater did, but he was a glimpse into the party's future.

Just as the 1964 ascendance of Goldwater, with his right–wing rhetoric, foretold a time when the moderates would be overthrown within the GOP and the conservatives would rule, McGovern's nomination in 1972 hinted at the day when nominating liberals would be commonplace in the Democratic Party.

Likewise, in ways that I didn't comprehend until many years later, 1972 had a huge influence on me. My mother played a big part in that.

Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about my mother so I won't go into detail on that. Neither should it be necessary to remind my readers that I was raised a Democrat and voted for Democrats for many years — but I now consider myself an independent.

The designation Democrat wasn't quite as restrictive when I was a child as it is today. In 2012, if one self–identifies as a Democrat, one is essentially embracing a left–leaning agenda, but 40 years ago, there were still quite a few conservative Democrats — and quite a few middle–of–the–road ones, too.

In those days, the Democrats' tent was big enough to accommodate them all — but not necessarily comfortably. It made for some pretty spirited debates — and, sometimes, some unpredictable outcomes.

Now, as I say, Mom was a Democrat. She was unapologetically a liberal Democrat, and I have no doubt she would feel quite at home in today's Democrat Party. But, while I'm sure Mom would be pleased that the party has moved more in her philosophical direction, she might miss the give and take of the Democratic scraps of her day.

See, in 1972, Mom was part of the liberal wing of the party. In large part because of its anger and frustration over the Vietnam War, that wing had been gradually seizing power within the party ever since Lyndon Johnson was elected in a landslide in 1964 and proceeded to escalate the bloodshed in southeast Asia.

And the liberals had come to realize, after settling for LBJ's vice president in 1968 when the Gene McCarthy candidacy fell short, that winning the presidential nomination was the gateway to public acceptance.

George McGovern's nomination for the presidency in 1972 was, in many ways, the fruition of the liberal wing's struggle for the heart and soul of the party.

In hindsight, that nomination probably wouldn't have been possible if it hadn't been for interference from President Nixon's campaign operatives, but, at the time, it was seen as confirmation of the party's permanent shift to the left.

And, whether intended or not, that has been the outcome. The party did seem to be moving back to the center with the election of Jimmy Carter four years later, but since Carter's time, Democratic nominees have tended to be — pardon the pun — progressively liberal.

I was a child in 1972, but I was an enthusiastic McGovern supporter. It wasn't so much because I understood many of the things of which he spoke but because Mom could always explain things to me in ways I could understand. And Mom was a McGovern supporter — so I was a McGovern supporter. Such was my logic in 1972.

The race for the 1972 nomination was extremely contentious. The party's more centrist establishment tended to favor the guys who had been on the '68 ticket, Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie, and the conservative wing liked George Wallace and Henry Jackson.

The emergence of an insurgent from the left drew a united effort to deprive McGovern of the nomination. It failed, but it made things quite interesting — especially after an attempt to assassinate Wallace inflated his vote totals in some late primaries.

Things didn't necessarily go smoothly when the Democrats held their convention in July 1972, but, to be sure, it was a lot smoother than it had been four years earlier, when antiwar protests turned into clashes with police in the streets of Chicago, but it was far from incident–free. In 1972, though, the Democrats kept their battles inside the convention hall.

In the buildup to the Democrats' 1972 challenge to Richard Nixon, they had relaxed their rules, allowing many groups that had not been adequately represented in the past to have an enhanced presence (and, consequently, enhanced power) at the convention.

That was a double–edged sword. Sometimes those battles had great substantive significance — debates over some platform planks went on all night — and sometimes they were frivolous.

Take for example the ridiculous fight over the vice presidential nominee.

For anyone who listened to the roll call of the states and heard some of the names of those who received a vote or two (actual people, such as McGovern's wife, Chinese leader Mao Zedong and TV journalist Roger Mudd and fictional TV character Archie Bunker), it was hard not to reach the conclusion that the groups who had been ignored in the past were flexing their newfound political muscles a bit — and they were doing so at their own nominee's expense.

Modern political conventions are so tightly managed that the nominee's acceptance speech is always delivered at a time that ensures maximum exposure in all 50 states. (This year, in fact, the Democrats forced the NFL to move its traditional season kickoff from Thursday night to Wednesday night so as not to conflict with Barack Obama's acceptance speech.)

But instead of giving his speech to a primetime audience on Thursday night, McGovern wound up speaking to a TV audience of mostly insomniacs. It was past midnight in most U.S. time zones when he started to speak.

McGovern tried to make light of the fact that his choice for running mate, Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, was challenged by "only 39 other nominees." He also poked fun at Nixon's selection of Spiro Agnew as his running mate four years earlier in a process that had been criticized as too rushed. As a result, he said, Democrats had learned "that it pays to take a little more time."

McGovern would soon regret those words.

Nevertheless, as White observed, he gave a great speech. But hardly anyone saw it.

I did.

It was summer, after all, and I was a kid. Staying up late was nothing special for me, and I remember sitting alone in the wee hours of the morning in my family's living room with my cassette tape recorder, dutifully recording the speech for Mom to hear the next day.

Like most folks, she had gone to bed long before the speech was given. I remember the house was mostly dark and mostly quiet — and I remember that I tried to keep the volume on the TV down so as not to disturb my parents or my brother.

I remember playing the tape for Mom the next day. She seemed to agree with most of it, nodded her head sometimes, broke into smiles at points, but she didn't seem as enthusiastic as I expected her to be.

Maybe she knew, somehow, what was to come. I was too young to realize it, of course, but I'm sure Mom was aware of the long odds McGovern faced.

"That was a good speech" was all she said after listening to my tape of the speech.

I was always sorry that she never got to see it.

Because, when you look at the 1972 campaign in that rear–view mirror of history, it is all too clear that George McGovern did not have many good days.

But this day 40 years ago was one of them — even though McGovern wound up delivering his acceptance speech to an audience made up mostly of children of the night.

Eagleton's withdrawal in a couple of weeks would not be a good day for McGovern, nor would the repeated spectacle of McGovern practically begging every prominent Democrat to be on his ticket — and being turned down by everyone until he came to Sargent Shriver.

There were no presidential debates in 1972. In fact, it was the last presidential election that did not feature at least one debate. It will always be anyone's guess whether a debate would have been a high point — or another low point — for the McGovern campaign.

And, on this night in 1972, what could safely be said to be McGovern's worst night of the campaign, his 49–state landslide loss to Richard Nixon, was nearly four months away.

Democrats in 2012 may feel they have been unfairly criticized at times, but their trials and tribulations have been laughable compared to what McGovern endured.

You could probably count the number of good days he had on a single hand — maybe two.

When he did have a good one, it had to be savored.

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