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.)

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