This is the second article in my “Biggest Losers” series, telling the stories of some of the more interesting–and more spectacular–unsuccessful candidates for President of the United States. The first article in this series profiled New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, who lost the election of 1872 to Ulysses Grant so badly that he went insane. Now let’s fast-forward exactly a century to another epic loss, the fascinating story of George McGovern’s 1972 bid against President Richard Nixon.
Don’t let the “Biggest Loser” tag fool you. McGovern was actually a pretty awesome guy. A smart, compassionate, deeply religious Methodist boy from a small farm town in South Dakota, World War II broke out while he was in college at Dakota Wesleyan University. George signed up for the Army and wound up flying B-24 bombers over Europe. A true war hero, in one incident in December 1944 he successfully landed his mortally wounded plane on a friendly field, saving the lives of his crew. After the war he became a history professor. Touched by the hunger and deprivation he saw in war-torn Europe, McGovern developed a passion to help the underprivileged, especially the hungry. As such he ran JFK’s Food for Peace program, and when McGovern entered the U.S. Senate in 1962 he was dedicated to progressive causes.
George McGovern headed one of John F. Kennedy’s successful humanitarian programs, Food for Peace. He resigned that post in 1962 to run for the Senate from South Dakota.
The story of McGovern’s 1972 campaign begins four years earlier. In 1968 the Democratic Party pretty much fell apart, splintered over Vietnam, the legacy of unpopular LBJ, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the disastrous Chicago convention. McGovern was one of the Democratic Party insiders who set to work trying to reform the Presidential nominating process within the party. From now on delegates would be keyed more tightly to the primary process, taking them out of the control of state and regional party leaders and thus avoiding “smoke filled room” deals. McGovern himself was an also-ran for the Democratic nomination in 1968, but after Nixon’s election and the deepening of divisions over the Vietnam War–which McGovern strongly opposed–he felt the time was right for a challenge, even though he was not thought of as a strong contender. He announced his candidacy in January 1971, then an extremely early time to jump into a Presidential race.
Having basically designed the new nomination process himself, McGovern should have been able to game it pretty effectively. For a while he did; his chief rival for the nomination, Ed Muskie, relied too much on an old-style “party boss” campaign, and fell victim to McGovern’s superior skills at grass-roots organizing, especially young people and liberal activists who saw him as the best chance to end the Vietnam War quickly. Ironically, though, McGovern’s insurgent campaign was forced to focus more on states with caucuses than those with primaries; he couldn’t really break through in New Hampshire. By April 1972 he did manage to climb to frontrunner status–barely. Unfortunately a lot of Democrats didn’t think he could win and were lukewarm to his candidacy. There was also the problem of George Wallace, fiery racist populist, who was mounting a serious challenge to McGovern from more conservative Democrats.
Wallace’s tragic luck proved to be McGovern’s good fortune. In May 1972 Wallace was shot by a deranged publicity seeker. He survived–though paralyzed–but his campaign was effectively over. McGovern limped (figuratively) into the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach in July with a majority of delegates, but surrounded by political enemies. Almost everybody who was big in the Democratic Party was secretly contributing to one of many “Stop McGovern” plots–Jimmy Carter, then Governor of Georgia, being the most prominent. There were various ugly fights at the convention, mostly over the now very complicated rules governing delegates. McGovern managed to beat back these challenges by the skin of his teeth. He secured the nomination, and many Democrats, thinking he was too liberal and couldn’t connect with the country, bit their nails.
Though passionate about the issues he believed in, McGovern was a poor campaigner. Check out this incredibly limp commercial his campaign ran in 1972. He approved this message?!!!?
By now McGovern had used up all the good luck he was going to have. Trying to pick a VP running mate proved a disaster, mainly because most Democrats assumed Nixon was unbeatable and signing on to McGovern’s campaign was like buying a ticket on the Titanic. Teddy Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale all turned him down cold. As the balloting for VP nominee went on, delegates started putting joke names in official contention, like Mao Tse-Tung and Archie Bunker. Faced with a convention that was rapidly unraveling, McGovern hastily decided upon little-known Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, who agreed. The “vet” done on Eagleton was minimal. McGovern may have harkened back to his World War II bomber days: by picking Eagleton he was flying on a wing and a prayer.
As it turned out, Eagleton had a shocking secret–literally. Two weeks after the convention the press discovered that Eagleton suffered from clinical depression and had received electroshock therapy. It’s not like he was totally over it, either: he was taking Thorazine while running for Vice-President. He tried to conceal all of this from McGovern. McGovern waffled as to whether or not to dump him, and Eagleton reportedly threatened McGovern politically if he tried to. Ultimately both men realized a public fight wasn’t worth it and Eagleton pulled out. Now it was three months to election time and McGovern had no running mate. The whole process of calling would-be veeps started again, only worse this time, because now McGovern’s campaign was in an even deeper tailspin than it was in July. Reluctantly Sargent Shriver–now ironically most famous for being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father-in-law–agreed to take the spot.
You would think with all these disasters plaguing McGovern, his opponent, Richard Nixon, would be sitting pretty and cruising to re-election as the undisputed nominee of a unified party, far ahead in the polls. Actually Nixon worried about McGovern quite a lot. Whether driven more by personal insecurity than a real fear that McGovern would beat him, Nixon directed his operatives to collect as much dirt on the opposition as possible. This led to the break-in at the Watergate building, which was meant to steal Democratic documents. In fact, Nixon had already said the words in June 1972 that would eventually lead to the destruction of his presidency–by ordering the cover-up–but no one knew it yet. The great irony of Nixon is that he needn’t have been nearly that concerned. McGovern simply had no chance of beating him.
McGovern had no chance of beating Nixon. So why was Tricky Dick so worried? Nixon’s wife, Pat, looked a lot more relaxed at the 1972 Republican Convention.
The fall campaign was pretty anemic. McGovern droned on about Vietnam, and Nixon kept doing things that looked Presidential, like unloading B-52s full of bombs over North Vietnam in an attempt to get them to negotiate. McGovern couldn’t convert on the Vietnam issue. The people who were against the war were going to vote for him anyway, and he won no new converts to the cause. Nixon pilloried McGovern rather unfairly as radically ultra-liberal on everything, which was far from the truth; how could McGovern have gotten elected to three Senate terms from a very conservative state if he was? But the perception had already formed. It was too late for the Democrats.
On November 7, 1972, Nixon utterly annihilated McGovern in one of the most decisive electoral landslides in American history. 18 million more people pulled the lever for Tricky Dick than for McGovern, and Nixon’s popular victory of 60.1% must have erased the sting of having lost so narrowly in 1960 (and won so narrowly in 1968). McGovern could read polls too and he knew he was finished long before Election Day. Barry Goldwater, the previous Biggest Loser in American electoral politics, sent McGovern a sympathy message. That’s how bad McGovern got blown out.
He was chastened by the enormity of his loss. After the election McGovern considered leaving the country permanently. Ultimately he went back to the Senate, winning (narrowly) re-election in 1974, after Nixon quit, but he was defeated in 1980. After that he turned to charity work, especially involving food and hunger issues, and by the time of his death in October 2012 he was regarded as a sterling humanitarian and selfless statesman. Unfortunately for his party, McGovern’s loss in 1972 provided the blueprint to Republicans for how to define–and beat–Democratic candidates for years to come: make them look as liberal as possible. In shorthand, that meant, make everybody think of George McGovern.