Wednesday, September 28, 2016

McGovern Falls: HST on the Campaign Trail 1972

Note: This is part two of my four-part review of Hunter S. Thompson's book on the 1972 presidential campaign.

With the nomination almost miraculously sewn up thanks to his campaign's "mind-bending coalition," McGovern proceeded to the Democratic convention assured of winning on the first ballot.  But this is precisely when things started to come unraveled for his candidacy.  There is no better example of this than the ridiculous lack of control McGovern exercised on the proceedings.  While he had chosen Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his vice-presidential running mate, many other names were nevertheless allowed to be placed in nomination with long-winded, self-serving speeches of pure hubris.  This ultimately meant that McGovern's acceptance speech (which I have previously blogged about here) was given at a ludicrous early-morning hour of 3 AM Eastern Time.

“But these brainless bastards persisted, nonetheless, using up half the night and all the prime time on TV, debasing the whole convention with a blizzard of self-serving gibberish that drove whatever was left of the national TV audience to bed or the ‘Late Late Show.'” (page 320)

Next, Eagleton turned out to be possibly the worst vetted candidate in American history (a huge mistake that can only be blamed on McGovern himself) when it was revealed only days after the convention that Eagleton suffered from depression in the 1960's and had received three electro-shock treatments for his 'fatigue.'  This did not instill confidence in the electorate.  McGovern was indecisive, initially standing behind his choice, then dumping him for Sargent Shriver when public opinion turned sour.   Suddenly, the "new politics" of McGovern seemed pretty ordinary.  A crisis of confidence ensued.   This, on top of animosity toward McGovern by the establishment Democratic power base, gave Richard Nixon a huge lead after the Republican convention later in August.

“Nixon returned from Miami with a commanding 60-30 lead over McGovern in the public polls – but roughly half of margin would disappear overnight if McGovern could somehow get the support of the Old Guard Democrats (the Jewish vote, the Humphrey vote, AFL-CIO unions still loyal to George Meany) who lost to McGovern in the primaries and now refused to support him.

“The reasons they gave are generally too vague or unfounded to argue with: ‘too radical,’ ‘anti-labor,’ ‘anti-Semitic,’ and they are not worth arguing about anyway; because the real reason why so many Old Guard Democrats are backing away from McGovern is a powerful desire to regain control of the Democratic Party.  The McGovern organization has only a tentative grip on the party machinery now, but a McGovern victory in November would give him at least four years to rebuild and revitalize the whole structure in his own image. To many professional Democrats – particularly the Big Fish in a Small Pond types who worked overtime for Humphrey or Jackson last spring – the prospect of a McGovern victory is far more frightening than another four years of Nixon.” (pp. 346-348)

Nevertheless, the McGovern brain trust felt the situation was not any worse than it had been prior to the New Hampshire primary, when no one gave McGovern a chance of winning the nomination.  All the basic reasoning for success by McGovern remained valid.  

Gary Hart insists that the ‘real work’ of the campaign is going along just like it was in New Hampshire, or Wisconsin, or California – ‘but the press can’t see it now just like they couldn’t see it back then in the early primaries.  Hell, our organizers don’t hold press conferences; nobody interviews our canvassers.'

“’I’d say we’re at the stage now (September 1) that we were back in the third week of February.  Stop worrying, Hunter, we’re doing fine.'” (page 350)

“But Hart has been talking like that since last Christmas: relentless optimism.  There was never any doubt in his mind – at least not in any conversation he had with me – that McGovern was going to win the Democratic nomination, and then the presidency.  One of his central beliefs for the past two years has been that winning the Democratic nomination would be much harder than beating Nixon.

“He explained it to me one night in Nebraska, sitting in the bar of the Omaha Hilton on the day before the primary: Nixon was a very vulnerable incumbent, he’d failed to end the war, he’d botched the economy, he was a terrible campaigner, he would crack under pressure, no body trusted him, etc. 

“So any Democratic candidate could beat Nixon, and all the candidates knew it.  That’s why they’d been fighting like wolverines for the nomination – especially Humphrey, who was a far more effective campaigner than Nixon, who had inherited enough of the ‘regular’ old-line party machinery, money, and connections from the Muskie campaign to make McGovern go into California and take on what amounted to the entire Old Guard of the Democratic Party….California was the key to both the nomination and the White House; a victory on the coast would make all the rest easy.

“Hart and I agreed on all this, at the time.  Nixon was obviously vulnerable, and he was such a rotten campaigner that, four years ago, Humphrey – even without the Youth Vote or the activist Left – had gained something like fifteen points on Nixon in seven weeks and only lost by an eyelash. So this time around, with even a third of the 25 million potential new voters added to Hubert’s ’68 power base, anybody who could win the Democratic nomination was almost a cinch to win the presidency.

“Now, looking back on that conversation, I can see a few flaws in our thinking.  We should have known, for instance, that Nixon had been hoarding his best shots for the ’72 stretch drive: The China/Russia trips, pulling the troops out of Vietnam, ram-rodding the economy…but none of these things, no matter how successful, would change enough votes to offset the Youth Vote.  The day after he won the nomination, McGovern would bank at least five million 18 to 21-year-olds’ votes…and another five million by mid-October, after massive campus registration drives.

“So the minor flaws didn’t matter a hell of a lot.  It was the Big One – the Humphrey Sidewinder – that blew half the spine out of the McGovern campaign’s strategy.  The one thing that apparently never occurred to Hart or Frank Mankiewicz – or to me either, for that matter, despite my rancid contempt for the Humphrey/Meany axis and everything it stood for – was the ominous possibility that those evil bastards would refuse to close ranks behind McGovern once he had the nomination.  It was almost inconceivable that they would be so bitter in defeat that they would tacitly deliver their own supporters to a conservative Republican incumbent, instead of at least trying to rally them behind the candidate of their own party…but this is what they have done, and in doing it they have managed to crack the very foundations of what McGovern had naturally assumed would be the traditional hard core of his Democratic Party power base.” (pp. 374-376)

“McGovern’s young staffers, after all, have never lost an election they expected to win, at the outset - and they definitely expected to win this one.  They are accustomed to being far behind in the public opinion polls.  McGovern has almost always been the underdog, and – except for California – he has usually been able to close the gap with a last-minute stretch run.

“Even in the primaries he lost – New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania – he did well enough to embarrass the pollsters, humiliate the pols, and crank up his staff morale another few notches.

“But that boundless blind faith is beginning to fade now.  The Curse of Eagleton is beginning to make itself felt in the ranks. And not even Frank Mankiewicz, the Wizard of Chevy Chase, can properly explain why McGovern is now being sneered at from coast to coast as ‘just another politician.’" (page 406)

Desperate to close ranks with the establishment Democratic power mongers, McGovern seemed to compromise his principles, which lead to further disillusionment with his candidacy.  

“If George gets stomped in November, it will not be because of anything Richard Nixon did to him.  The blame will trace straight back to his brain-trust, to whoever had his ear enough to convince him that all that bullshit about ‘new politics’ was fine for the primaries, but it would never work against Nixon – so he would have to abandon his original power base, after Miami, and swiftly move to consolidate the one he’d shattered: the Meany/Daley/Humphrey/Muskie axis, the senile remnants of the Democratic Party’s once-powerful ‘Roosevelt coalition.’

“McGovern agreed.  He went to Texas and praised LBJ; he revised his economic program to make it more palatable on Wall Street; he went to Chicago and endorsed the Daley/Democratic ticket, including State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan, who is still under indictment on felony/conspiracy (Obstruction of Justice) charges for his role in a police raid on local Black Panther headquarters for his role in a police raid on local Black Panther headquarters three years ago that resulted in the murder of Fred Hampton.” (p. 406 – 407)

But as the weeks rolled on Nixon's mammoth lead held up. He had brought almost all ground troops home from Vietnam.  He became the first US President to visit communist Russia and China.  He had no fear of the “youth vote.” His signature lowered the legal voting age to 18 to begin with. The economy, though still mediocre, was starting to improve.  All this, while McGovern faltered. 

The McGovern campaign appears to be fucked at this time. A spectacular Come From Behind win is still possible – on paper and given the right circumstances – but the underlying realities of the campaign itself would seem to preclude this. A cohesive, determined campaign with the same kind of multi-level morale that characterized the McGovern effort in the months preceding the Wisconsin primary might be a good bet to close the twenty-point gap on Nixon in the last month of this grim presidential campaign.” (page 410)

“The tragedy of this is that McGovern appeared to have a sure lock on the White House when the sun came up on Miami Beach on the morning of Thursday, July 13th.  Since then he has crippled himself with a series of unbelievable blunders…that have understandably convinced large chunks of the electorate, including at least half of his own hard-core supporters, that The Candidate is a gibbering dingbat.  His behavior since Miami has made a piecemeal mockery of everything he seemed to stand for in the primaries.” (page 411)

“The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about ‘new politics’ and ‘honesty in government,’ is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.  McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and perfect expression of everything he stands for.” (page 414)

Even the initial news of the now infamous Watergate break-in of Democratic headquarters had little impact.  The ultimate affect of that criminal act by the Nixon campaign would play out in 1974, far beyond the periphery of HST's reporting as the campaign unfolded in 1972.  Once again, he is working in the present moment, without the benefit of hindsight.

“But how would the voters react if they knew the President of the United States was presiding over ‘a complex, far-reaching and sinister operation on the part of White House aides and the Nixon campaign organization…involving sabotage, forgery, theft of confidential files, surveillance of Democratic candidates and their families and persistent efforts to lay the basis for possible blackmail and intimidation.’

“That ugly description of Nixon’s staff operations comes from a New York Times editorial on Thursday, October 12th. But neither Nixon nor anyone else felt it would have much effect on his steady two-to-one lead over McGovern in all the national polls.  Four days later the Times/Yankelovich poll showed Nixon ahead by an incredible twenty points (57 percent to 37 percent, with 16 percent undecided) over the man Bobby Kennedy described as ‘the most decent man in the Senate.’” (page 417)

(To be continued.)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

McGovern Rising: HST on the Campaign Trail 1972

Note: This is the first of a four-part review of Hunter S. Thompson's great book on the 1972 presidential campaign.

“It was just before midnight when I left Cambridge and headed north on U.S. 93 toward Manchester – driving one of those big green rented Auto/Stick Cougars that gets rubber for about twenty-nine seconds in Drive, and spits hot black divots all over the road in First or Second…a terrible screeching and fishtailing through the outskirts of Boston headed north to New Hampshire, back on the Campaign Trail…running late, as usual: left hand on the wheel and the other on the radio dial, seeking music, and a glass of iced Wild Turkey spilling into my crotch on every turn.” (page 58)

This is not what you'd typically expect to read in a book about politics.  But 1972 was no typical election and the man covering it for Rolling Stone Magazine, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (HST), was no typical journalist.  As head of the self-proclaimed "National Affairs Desk" for the magazine, HST wielded his penchant for hard, often drug-induced, living with colorful, astute writing to present an inside look at American presidential politics for the massive readership of a rock music news publication.

The result was a lengthy article twice each month about happenings within (and post-election analysis of) the campaign from December 1971 through December 1972. These articles were compiled during January 1973 into a book narrative. The result, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, is widely considered one of the great works of political literature of the twentieth-century.   

While the book contains plenty of tangents where HST waxes on and on about the bars he frequented along the way, various drugs he ingested, the importance of grapefruit and coffee for breakfast, gambling, professional football, and comical characters and situations he encountered on the campaign trail (he often digresses to the point where he admits to veering off course - part of his writing style), I will focus this review on the aspects of this entertaining and fascinating classic work that pertain specifically to politics.  It is, after all, the reason HST is writing.  HST tends to get personally invested in whatever he covers, as revealed in 1967’s Hell's Angels and, of course, 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

HST was on his way to Manchester to cover the New Hampshire primary where conventional wisdom had Senator Ed Muskie from Maine winning by a comfortable margin that would give him the momentum he needed for a strong showing in the Florida primary next Tuesday. Muskie was expected to win the Democratic Party nomination with ease and then go on to face incumbent Republican president Richard Nixon in the fall general election.

All Muskie had to do was outlast a field of supposedly weak, would-be Democratic contenders that included New York City mayor John Lindsay, New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (the first black person to run for president on a major party ticket), former vice-president Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Senator Henry Jackson of Washington state, Alabama Governor George Wallace, and South Dakota Senator George McGovern.  There were several others in the large Democratic field but none of the "wizards" (as HST calls the movers and shakers of within politics) really expected any of them to overtake Muskie.

Conventional wisdom was wrong, however. Although Muskie won New Hampshire, an unexpectedly strong second-place showing by McGovern muted his momentum.  One week later George Wallace won every county in Florida (Muskie finished a distant third, McGovern finished sixth) and the Muskie campaign suddenly found itself floundering.  The nominee-apparent ended up dropping out of the race in May. Meantime, the McGovern campaign put together a dedicated grassroots organization and won a surprise victory in the Wisconsin primary, which was leveraged to catapult him into a front-runner status.

HST was sympathetic to McGovern all along but, like everyone else covering the race, he did not think the South Dakota Senator had a real change. All that changed after Wisconsin.  The reason for McGovern's unexpected success, according to HST, was his ability to run as the "anti-politician," to coalesce an unlikely combination of the electorate, and to follow in the footsteps of the upstart ideals of a 1968 candidate.  

“So it is probably fair to assume that if Bobby Kennedy were alive today – and somehow retired from politics – he would agree with almost everything McGovern says and stands for.   If only because everything McGovern stands for is a cautious extension of what Bobby Kennedy was trying to put together in the aborted campaign of 1968.” (page 139)

Ironically, one of the contributing factors of McGovern's success was his ability to tap into the energy of George Wallace, a man politically the polar opposite of himself. McGovern did this with grace and authenticity.  For his part, HST was impressed with Wallace as a campaigner and spotted the nature of his appeal early on, which McGovern deftly assimilated. 

“For the next two hours I was locked in a friendly, free-wheeling conversation with about six of my hosts who didn’t mind telling me they were there because George Wallace was the most important man in America. ‘This guy is the real thing,’ one of them said.  ‘I never cared anything about politics before, but Wallace ain’t the same as the others. He don’t sneak around the bush.  He just comes right out and says it.’

“It was the first time I’d ever seen Wallace in person.  There were no seats in the hall: everybody was standing.  The air was electric even before he started talking, and by the time he was five or six minutes into his spiel I had a sense that the bastard had somehow levitated himself and was hovering over us.  He reminded me of a Janis Joplin concert. Anybody who doubts that Wallace appeal should go out and catch his act sometime.  He jerked this crowd in Serb Hall around like he had them all on wires.  They were laughing, shouting, whacking each other on the back…it was a flat-out fire & brimstone performance.” (page 156 - the emphasis in all quotes is HST's)

The results in Wisconsin proved that the McGovern campaign had broad appeal, which established his legitimacy in the face of the Democratic "establishment" who had backed Muskie and then got behind Humphrey as the Maine senator faded from the race.  This would cause problems for McGovern in the long run, but that was not so obvious as HST reported events in the moment, as they happened, without the benefit of any hindsight.  HST wrote about the McGovern campaign's post-Wisconsin self-evaluation as presented by top McGovern operatives Frank Mankiewicz and Pat Caddell

“Using analysis of selected precincts, Mankiewicz proved with statistics what he had been saying for weeks – that McGovern has the support of blue-collar workers, farmers, old people, young people, students, housewives – in short he is a presidential candidate so statistically proven that no convention could refuse him.

“‘Do your notes show any weaknesses?’ a reporter asked.

“’Yes – Mankiewicz!’ another reporter shouted.

“Mankiewicz admitted that McGovern has not yet cultivated the black vote.  Caddell then got up to analyze the blue-collar support.  Both McGovern and Wallace, he said, draw on the same pool of extremely alienated blue-collar voters, a group that is constantly getting deeper into bitterness, cynicism, and resentment about the current government.” (page 180)

So, oddly enough given his liberal brand of politics compared with Wallace's conservatism, it was McGovern who benefited most from the unfortunate assassination attempt on Wallace in May.  This loomed large in the winner-take-all California primary in June.

“George McGovern’s queer idea that he could get himself elected President on the Democratic ticket by dancing a muted whipsong on the corpse of the Democratic Party is suddenly beginning to look very sane, and very possible.  For the last five or six days in California, McGovern’s campaign was covered dawn to midnight by fifteen or twenty camera crews, seventy-five to a hundred still photographers, and anywhere from fifty to two hundred linear writing press types.  The media crowd descended on McGovern like a swarm of wild bees, and there was not one of them who doubted that he/she was covering The Winner.” (page 237)

California turned out to be a very close primary between McGovern and Humphrey, who, as I have said, became the candidate of the establishment Democrats whose control over the party was threatened by the upstart, somewhat populist, grassroots power of the McGovern campaign. Impressively, McGovern prevailed by a thin margin as his campaign became more sophisticated and generated surprising momentum.  The close McGovern win translated into a block of 271 delegates.

“All that saved McGovern in California was a long-overdue success among black voters, strong support from chicanos, and a massive pro-McGovern Youth Vote.  This is a very healthy power base, if he can keep it together – but it is not enough to beat Nixon in November unless McGovern can figure out a way to articulate this tax and welfare positions a hell of a lot more effectively than he did in California.  Even Hubert Humphrey managed to get McGovern tangled up in his own economic proposals from time to time during their TV debates in California – despite the fact that toward the end of that campaign Humphrey’s senile condition was so obvious that even I began to feel sorry for him.” (page 248)

HST was one of the few journalists to understand how the McGovern campaign benefitted from George Wallace by learning what it could from Wallace, respecting the Alabama governor's constituency, and capitalizing on Wallace's comparative lack of organization. 

“George McGovern has been widely ridiculed in the press as ‘the ideal anti-media candidate.’  He looks wrong, talks wrong, and even acts wrong – by conventional TV standards. But McGovern has his own ideas about how to use the tube. In the early primaries he kept his TV exposure to a minimum – for a variety of reasons that included a lack of both money and confidence – but by the time he got to California for the showdown with Hubert Humphrey, McGovern’s TV campaign was operating at the level of a very specialized art form. His thirty-minute biography – produced by Charley Guggenheim – was so good even the most cynical veteran journalists said it was the best political film ever made for television…and Guggenheim’s sixty-second spots were better than the bio film.  Unlike the earlier front-runners, McGovern had taken his time and learned how to use the medium – instead of letting the medium use him.

Sincerity is the important thing on TV.  A presidential candidate should at least seem to believe what he’s saying- even if it’s all stone crazy. McGovern learned this from George Wallace in Florida, and it proved to be a very valuable lesson. One of the crucial moments of the ’72 primary campaign came on election night in Florida, March 14th, when McGovern – who had finished a dismal sixth, behind even Lindsay and Muskie - refused to follow Big Ed’s sour example and blame his poor showing on that Evil Racist Monster, George Wallace, who had just swept every county in the state.  Moments after Muskie had appeared on all three networks to denounce the Florida results as tragic proof that at least half the voters were ignorant dupes and Nazis, McGovern came on and said that although he couldn’t agree with some of the things Wallace said and stood for, he sympathized with people who’d voted for ‘The Governor’ because they were ‘angry and fed up’ with some of the things that are happening in this country.  ‘I feel the same way,’ he added.  ‘But unlike Governor Wallace, I’ve proposed constructive solutions to these problems.’” (page 273)

“If Wallace had taken himself seriously as a presidential candidate – as a Democrat or anything else – he might have put together the kind of organization that would have made him a genuine threat in the primaries, instead of just a spoiler. McGovern, on the other hand, had put together a fantastic organization – but until he went into Wisconsin he had never tried to tap the kind of energy that seemed to be flowing, perhaps by default, to Wallace.  He had given it some thought while campaigning in New Hampshire, but it was only after he beat Muskie in two blue-collar, hardhat wards in the middle of Manchester that he saw the possibility of a really mind-bending coalition: a weird mix of peace freaks and hardhats, farmers and film stars, along with urban blacks, rural chicanos, the ‘youth vote’…a coalition that could elect almost anybody.” (page 278)

At this point, the McGovern campaign had a lot of positive momentum and the possibilities for winning the presidency seemed very real.  HST admired the candidate as a decent human being and someone who would change the way established politics worked in America, bring meaningful inclusion to the disenfranchised within our society, and repair our country's shattered reputation abroad. HST was downright giddy.  This was the heady, high-tide of McGovern's candidacy. The optimism would not last for long.

(To be continued.) 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Destin Out of Season

We enjoyed beautiful blue skies under our blue beach umbrellas.  Jennifer shot this photo with her iPhone.
We caught the sunset on the beach every evening.
The week after Labor Day was the first time in many years we have been able to vacation in Destin in the off-season.  Our family tradition is to stay in the same, simple condo complex there since Avery was a toddler.  Generally, we have visited during the summer to accommodate her school schedule. Summer's are great in Destin, the beach and gulf waters are usually wonderfully clear and beautiful as I have blogged about in the past (see here, here, here, and here).  

But summers have become increasingly crowded as ever more commercial development has led to high-rise condo complexes up and down the ocean front.  The restaurants and amusements are packed, the traffic on Highway 98 is heavily congested. It is fun but also not as relaxed since everything is so inundated with tourists. I am not a big fan of crowds.

It wasn't like that this year. Avery was between quarters in college making the post-Labor Day excursion possible.  The beach, shopping centers and attractions were all less crowded. We were able to drive around in about half the time it normally takes to get somewhere during the peak season. We didn't have to wait on a table at any restaurants. Our new favorite eating establishment is a place called Vin'tij Wine Bontique & Bistro that Jennifer wanted to try.  It's cuisine was top-notch and we all enjoyed part of Avery's Fried Oyster BLT, something the restaurant has built a loyal local clientele around.

Hurricane Hermine made landfall about 100 miles to the east the week before, unfortunately churning up a lot of seaweed, which diminished the pristine clarity of the emerald water that we are accustomed to.  Otherwise, the weather was great and the trip was relaxing.

Plenty of shore bird action along the beach.
The pool area was empty for my morning swim each day.  It felt great to seemingly have the place to myself.
Jennifer and Avery spent more time on the beach than I did, enjoying watermelon and other snacks.  You can see how clear the skies were for our trip. 
Avery snapped this photo of me as we caught the sunset our last night there.
I was up early every morning to catch the sunrise as well.  Once again, it felt like having the space to myself.
The water contained more seaweed than usual due to the hurricane the previous week, but it still featured streaks of clear beauty - with fewer people.