"If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things."
2008 Democratic National Convention
Presidential elections are seldom about what they should be about.
I probably should have learned that on this day in 1972 — or, at least, not long thereafter.
As I have mentioned here before, my mother was a huge supporter of George McGovern, the quixotic Democratic nominee who ran against President Richard Nixon that year. McGovern tried to run on the big issues of the day — the biggest of which was the Vietnam War, which had so divided America four years earlier when Nixon had been elected president.
And I frequently went with Mom when she was campaigning door to door for McGovern that fall.
She admired the fact that McGovern spoke about the difficult issues of war and peace, poverty and prosperity, and, while I don't remember McGovern's loss on this day being a surprise to her, as I mentioned on the occasion of McGovern's death last month, she must have known what was coming. Everyone did.
It was a different time, which is something, I suppose, that younger Americans simply cannot understand any more than they can understand how their elders used to listen to recordings on discs several times the size of modern CDs that were deceptively heavy and could only be played with — of all things — needles.
It was the last election in which the major party nominees did not debate at least once — Nixon had learned his lesson from the experience of debating John F. Kennedy and declined all such offers.
Such a move probably would be greeted by a huge public outcry today. Modern voters expect presidential candidates to debate each other, but it merited only a couple of references by most observers and then it was dropped when it drew no traction.
Neither, for that matter, did the Watergate break–in and coverup. Oh, Watergate was mentioned from time to time, but, as Jason Robards observed in the movie version of "All the President's Men" — "Half the country never even heard of the word 'Watergate.' Nobody gives a s***."
And that is my memory of the general attitude toward the break–in. It was one of those things that may happen in a political campaign. It was deplorable, everyone agreed; the people who participated in the planning and the execution of the plan should be brought to justice, but it wasn't the candidate's fault. The candidate, especially if he was an incumbent, could not possibly be expected to know everything that went on within his campaign organization and in his name.
People today — perhaps foolishly, given what we learned about human nature from that episode in our history — expect better than that from their candidates. They wouldn't stand for any of the old–school shenanigans and dirty tricks that, in hindsight, marked all of Nixon's campaigns in one way or another.
"It was customary, during and after the campaign, to say that the American people did not care," wrote Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1972."
"Wise men agreed, and the polls supported them, that it meant little — that Americans had become callous, too cynical to worry about morality in government."
White was torn on the issue in what was the final volume in his "The Making of the President" series. Based on his observations from the campaign trail, White wrote, people were concerned about what they were hearing about the president's men and what they had been up to.
And, based on the number of voters who came to the polls compared to four years earlier, White concluded that Nixon "failed to maximize his potential support."
"[I]t is possible," White wrote, "that at least 3 or 4 million Americans were so disillusioned by both candidates that they chose not to vote at all."
For those who did vote, however, there was "an open choice of ideas, a free choice of directions, and they chose Richard Nixon."
And, while some people did try to make the 1972 election about the big things — the war, the economy, Watergate — my memory is that the Nixon campaign focused on small things — inconsistencies in McGovern's voting record or verbal missteps — and didn't spend too much time talking about what Nixon had done or what he hoped to do.
Nixon had told voters in 1968 that he had a "secret plan" to end the war in six months, a plan he could not reveal because of the sensitivity of the information and the strategy. The war was still going on in 1972. He had failed to achieve the thing that most Americans wanted more than anything else.
If the campaign had been about that, Nixon probably would have faced — in the words of one of his successors — a "one–term proposition." And, privately, Nixon was bitter about the war with which Kennedy and Johnson had saddled him.
There were arguments that Nixon could have made that there had been real improvements on long–term propositions — because ending the war and reviving a sagging economy that was just beginning to experience long–term issues on energy really were long–term problems. It was unrealistic to regard them as anything else.
Of course, promising to end the war in six months was unrealistic and probably ill–advised, but even more ill–advised was any decision to vote based solely on that remark. McGovern did mention that promise from time to time in 1972, but my memory is that most people were dismissive of it. I don't remember any fist fights breaking out over the pledge.
Nixon could — and did — focus on big accomplishments, like forging new relationships with the Chinese and the Russians. But, mostly, his campaign was about little things.
Much like the campaign that just concluded.
While their political philosophies were different, Mitt Romney reminds me a lot of George McGovern — a decent man who sought to speak about big things but was frequently mischaracterized and belittled, first in his own party and then in the general election.
Romney handled it better than McGovern did. He didn't have to drop his running mate, after all. But, nevertheless, his was the first major–party ticket to lose both its home states since the 1972 election.
(Paul Ryan, of course, is a native of Wisconsin, but plausible arguments could be made that Romney's home state could be Michigan, the state of his birth, or Massachusetts, the state that elected him its governor. For the purpose of the argument, though, it doesn't matter. The GOP lost both.)
And Romney didn't lose in a huge landslide. It was a squeaker by historical standards. Obama's successful re–election was the most tepid I have witnessed in my lifetime — and he is the fifth president in that time to be re–elected.
Of course, three sitting presidents (including Gerald Ford, who is an exception because he was never elected president or vice president) have been rejected by the voters, too.
I believed Obama would join them. I was wrong.
He may yet join Nixon. I believe there is a lot about the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi that has not been revealed. I don't know if it will be revealed before Obama's term is over. That may depend upon whether mainstream journalists are willing to explore the troubling questions that have been raised, no matter where those questions may lead them.
It should be a source of enduring shame to journalists the way they have often shilled for the administration and failed to act as the watchdogs of the truth they are supposed to be. (I see more egregious examples of this in broadcast journalism than I do in print — but, unfortunately, Americans seem less inclined to read than ever.)
It was the role of watchdog, perhaps more than any other, that attracted me to journalism when I was young — the dogged determination of the press to pursue Watergate wherever it took them. I hope American journalists will rediscover the value of that role.
Perhaps then, if we allow a big election to be defined by little things, it will not be because the press did not do its job.