George McGovern didn’t win, but he changed the Democratic Party

During the fall of 2011, C-SPAN ran a series called “The Contenders.” The Contenders were candidates who ran for president and lost. Some came from the two major parties, examples being Barry Goldwater, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John McCain. Others came from third parties, such as Ross Perot and George Wallace.

In 1972, the Democrats nominated South Dakota Senator George McGovern to run against Richard Nixon, who was seeking his second term. Nixon was popular; he had successfully wrapped the flag around himself as he carried on the Vietnam War. His domestic policies were nowhere as harsh and insensitive as those of today’s GOP leaders.

McGovern won the nomination by filling a void that existed because there was no charismatic popular Democrat who was ready to assume the mantle of the nomination. McGovern had two other factors that made him a logical candidate. Both emanated from the tragedy, confusion, and chaos which had characterized the Democratic campaign of 1968.

It was in 1968 when Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged and nearly defeated Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire Primary. Shortly thereafter Senator Robert Kennedy entered the race, much to the cheers of those who felt that the Kennedy brand of leadership had been stolen from America in Dallas on November 22, 2011. However, the McCarthy’s supporters saw Kennedy as an opportunist who entered the race only after McCarthy demonstrated that it was safe to do so. President Johnson was retreating and on March 31 he announced that he would not seek re-election.

Robert Kennedy became the prohibitive favorite after winning the California primary, but the tragedy of 1968 continued when he was shot and killed that very night of the victory. It was impossible for the Democrats to find definition and purpose by the time of the convention in Chicago. An amorphous group of anti-war activists was pitted against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey who was essentially President Johnson’s stand-in. The convention was as chaotic as could be as the delegates fought inside the convention hall and outside there was violence between anti-war activists and the Chicago police.

Humphrey eventually won the nomination, which may or may have been a prize or a curse. To illustrate how undemocratic the process had been, Humphrey did not win a single primary on the way to the nomination. In fact he didn’t enter a single primary.

McGovern became a contender for 1972 after the Democrat Humphrey lost in 1968, albeit by a much smaller margin that was predicted. McGovern was intent on reforming the Democratic Party, particularly with regard to how delegates were selected for conventions. By 1968, a number of civil rights bills had been passed Congress and been signed into law. However, the percentage of African-Americans at the Democratic convention was only 6% compared to the national percentage of 11%. And while half of Americans were women, only 13% of the delegates at the 1968 convention were females.

In return for minimally acquiescing to Humphrey’s nomination in 1968, McGovern was empowered to chair a committee to reform the procedures of the party in selecting delegates. The goal was to have a much more democratic system in place for the 1972 convention. McGovern was thoroughly committed to making the Democratic Party more representative of the American people as a whole. The commission changed the nominating process so that no candidate could become the nominee without gaining the credibility of entering and winning a number of primaries. He felt that democratizing the process was the right thing to do and that it would create a significant separation between the Democratic and Republican Parties. In his mind and that of many other progressives, this would only help the Democratic Party.

When McGovern agreed to chair the committee, he professed to not be interested in the party’s nomination in 1972. That may have been initially true, but the progressives who had now gained control of the party saw him as a true representative of their interests. McGovern had flirted with the idea of running for president in both 1968 and now 1972. With his primary constituency of progressives behind him, he tossed away his doubts and formally entered the race.

Indicative of the residue of chaos that still existed in the party, the 1972 convention was so disorganized that that McGovern did not get the requisite majority of delegates until engaging in wheeling and dealing both before and during the convention. This was neither his preference nor his style. The cost of the confusion was that he was not able to give his acceptance speech until 2:30 AM when the audience was only seven million people, about one-fourth of what it would have been had it the speech been in prime time.

The period immediately following the convention was also fraught with confusion. Because McGovern did not have the nomination locked prior the assembly, he had put very little thought into his choice for vice-president.

Once he focused on the vice-presidency, he had two misfortunes. First many of his top choices were not interested because they saw certain defeat. They simply did not want to be associated with the 1972 presidential race. When McGovern finally selected Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, McGovern’s lack of full vetting resulted in further difficulties. Eagleton had been hospitalized several times for depression and twice had received shock treatment. Because Eagleton was a very sympathetic and bright figure, the American people may well have accepted the complications in his mental health history. But the fact that he did not share the information about his mental health with McGovern prior to being selected as the vice-presidential nominee created a credibility gap which heightened suspicions.

George McGovern had one of the worst showings of a candidate in presidential history. He carried just one state, the so-called liberal bastion of Massachusetts. He received only 37% of the popular vote nation-wide.

What he had not accomplished in content (e.g. victory), he achieved by changing the process. To a certain extent, Jimmy Carter, and to a greater extent, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for changing the party rules so that a candidate who did not enter the race as the front-runner could convince voters of his desirability and viability and secure the nomination.

In many ways, George McGovern is best known as an anti-war candidate; someone who had the courage and fortitude to stand up against the folly of the Vietnam War. It helped him win the nomination; it essentially ensured that he would do poorly among independents and Republicans.

What few people know about McGovern is that he was not a pacifist. He opposed the war in Vietnam because, to quote a future president, he thought it was a “dumb war.” But when the United States was compelled to enter World War II, McGovern quickly enlisted and became a very successful B-24 pilot, flying 35 missions over Europe.

An irony, which we will explore at a later time, is how this man who bravely fought for his country as part of “the greatest generation,” opposed a war which may have been a mistake from the beginning and certainly was an unwise venture after several years of engagement. In contrast were the neo-cons who got the United States into Iraq. Individuals such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, Richard Pearle, and Condoleezza Rice were anxious to go to war, even though they had never experienced it. President George Bush initiated the war with the bravado of a cowboy, but his military record was checkered at best.

If you’d like to learn more about a brave anti-war politician, you can view the C-SPAN report on this contender by clicking here.

Arthur Lieber Arthur Lieber (312 Posts)

Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.