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.) 

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