The Spectator

George McGovern Was a Winner

His 1972 campaign was the most lopsided loss in presidential history. But this man was no loser.

Former Senator George McGovern (D-SD) testifies before the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Former presidential candidate and Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) in 2007

Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images.

A phone call from George McGovern. It was late 2003 and I’d had no contact with him since the disastrous supersad election night of 1972 in Sioux Falls, S.D. I was covering the presidential campaign for the Village Voice, the first presidential race I covered, and I’d come to admire McGovern for his grace under the pressure of overwhelming odds, in what many saw as a quixotic, radical pursuit of an anti-war campaign. That night in Sioux Falls he’d become the biggest loser in presidential history, winning only one state (and the District of Columbia) to Richard Nixon’s ill-gotten 49.

But back in 2003, at the brief dizzying height of another losing anti-war campaign—this time Howard Dean’s—I’d written a column recalling McGovern, remembering the way he doggedly pursued his campaign against the Vietnam War. He was never a pacifist; he’d been a decorated bomber pilot during World War II. And so the flak he took for this new mission hadn’t deterred him from running on what he thought of as an overwhelming moral issue. I was thanking McGovern for having the courage to take the anti-war case to the nation.

After the column was published, McGovern left a phone message for me. We ended up having a fascinating talk about the 1972 campaign. And when the sad news came this week that he was being transferred to hospice care, the memory of that conversation came back to me. [Update, Oct. 21: McGovern died Sunday morning.] He talked about the way it turned out and the role of the media, which basically took over presidential politics that year with the advent of the self-regarding “Boys on the Bus” campaigning mode.

Don’t get me wrong, I was on the bus, and I’m a big fan of Timothy Crouse’s book by the same name (wherein I’m mentioned). And I think Crouse was right on the money in recognizing he was witnessing a kind of transfer of power from the politicos to the media big shots who would forever after determine the narratives of the campaigns.

But the fact is the boys on the bus tragically missed the real story of the ’72 election, the history that was going on beneath the surface of the campaign hoopla. And who knows, if they’d gotten off the bus, forsaken the comforts of the campaign planes (and believe me there were many), and gone back to Washington and followed the leads dug up by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, things might have been different. If half the things that got Nixon driven out of office less than two years later had come to light before the ’72 election, it’s not inconceivable we’d be talking about the final days of ex-President McGovern now.

I didn’t realize it when I picked up the phone, but that’s what was on McGovern’s mind—the counterfactual history of the ’72 campaign. In addition to thanking me for writing about him, a noble loser, he wanted to suggest that his loss wasn’t inevitable.

I had invoked in that column one of the great lines from one of the great journalists of the past century, Murray Kempton. (Will someone, please, bring out a collection of Kempton’s columns? Nobody writes such beautiful intricate prose about the scoundrels of politics.) Anyway, Kempton once told me, “you learn more from spending time in the losing side’s locker room” than you do amid the triumphalism of the winners. (I’d actually visited the losing locker room of a Superbowl team—the Vikings of course—and had an unproductive chat with quarterback Fran Tarkenton. But I must admit I learned something from his calm demeanor in the face of the loss.) And I’d learned something following McGovern from the very beginning of what was seen as a quixotic crusade, traveling on his puddle-jumping Ozark Airlines charter flights into the bleak Iowa tundra in January. Through the weird violent impact of the George Wallace assassination attempt in May, that strange break-in at the Watergate that June, down through the luxe delusion of the Democratic National Convention in Miami, which signaled the high tide of what seemed like a radical anti-war takeover of the Democratic Party.* And finally to the hapless fall campaign with all its false hopes dashed on that night in Sioux Falls, where the candidate had gone home to await the returns and give a strange premonitory press conference on Election Day morning in which he spoke wistfully about how he loved the frosty Dakota mornings where you could hear the cooings of the mourning doves. (Seriously: “mourning doves.”)

In fact, I had learned something from George McGovern back in 1972—and once again 2003. Back then I’d learned to admire his steady stoic grace, as with a sad face, reedy voice, and steely determination he pressed forward because of his belief in the morality of his mission—in this case, to stop the senseless killing of Americans and Asians. Killing that Nixon had secretly and illegally spread beyond the boundaries of Vietnam, destabilizing Cambodia with his secret bombing, and thus setting up the Khmer Rouge genocide to come. All the while deceiving the American people on the foreign policy front with false promises of peace and—on the domestic side—an array of dirty tricks designed to seal the deal and suppress dissent once he’d won. I’d learned that losers on the wrong side of the electoral tally could be right about history.

On election night, after the magnitude of the loss became apparent, I’d gone back to my room at the Sioux City Holiday Inn and—desperate for a nonobvious angle to write about—tracked down Alf Landon in his home in Kansas. You remember Alf? Until that night he’d been the biggest loser, winning only two states in FDR’s 1936 landslide. He was a bit taken aback when I reached him with what I thought might be good news; he seemed to take it calmly. He also had the gravitas of a good loser.

But in writing about McGovern in 2003 I think I struck a nerve with him when I focused on the noble loser angle. It was meant as a compliment—I recalled his sad face and steely bomber-pilot determination, but McGovern did not seem entirely happy about the noble-loser designation. He wanted to talk about that alternative history from the campaign of ’72.

He pointed out that there were a number of unforeseeable events and undiscovered secrets which could have made for a different outcome. The assassination attempt on George Wallace for instance. Not fatal but serious enough to keep him from running as a third-party candidate where he could have taken a hundred or so electoral votes from the newly Republican racist South Nixon had been counting on.

And he pointed out how Nixon and Kissinger had blatantly, disingenuously ensured victory with their phony “October surprise” press conference in which it was proclaimed that “peace is at hand.” A lie as it turned out, and thousands went to their grave for it.

But his strongest argument had to do with the press and Watergate. All those big shots on the campaign plane essentially doing useless stenography of campaign speeches, press releases, and photo ops with a little local color thrown in to justify their expense accounts. (In my own defense, I did track down and get exclusive (although unresponsive) interviews with two of the Watergate burglars in Miami.) The more thoughtful print reporters knew they would soon have to take a backseat to newly mobile TV coverage that blanded out any serious consideration of the issues.

And the question, the real counterfactual question: What if those smart aggressive print reporters had treated the campaign less like an all-expenses-paid tour of America, and had instead followed Woodward and Bernstein’s leads? What if the illegal break-in, burglary, and wiretapping “plumbers’ squad” had come to light before the November election? What if the link between the Watergate break-in and the Nixon White House had been made clear—along with the dirty money, cover-up payments, and the rest lurking beneath the surface? You never know. But when it did come out, Nixon fled the White House in disgrace. Wouldn’t he have fled the campaign if the dirty illegal acts he ordered had been revealed? Would America really have then elected a small-time crook like Spiro Agnew, soon to be convicted of bribe-taking, president? It might have all happened before that night in Sioux City if the media had not been wallowing in its newfound power and prestige on the campaign planes and buses.

I’ve criticized Woodward and Bernstein for failing to nail Nixon to the original Watergate break-in order, not merely the cover-up. But their achievement remains heroic, and if you go back and look at the state of play before the elections, it was a close run thing whether Nixon would manage to keep the plumber’s squad’s head, Howard Hunt, from spilling the beans and wrecking Nixon’s campaign because of the pressure Woodstein was putting on the whole conspiracy.

And—it’s not inconceivable, though improbable considering the reverence for power the press displayed—what if another contingent of reporters had decided to follow up on the leads in the Pentagon Papers, listened to Daniel Ellsberg, and exposed the illegal bombing that set the stage for Pol Pot? One feels America didn’t want to know, but it’s not that the knowledge would have been impossible to obtain. It might have made a difference. Not the killing, alas, but the lying.

I don’t know. I do feel that McGovern had a case that he shouldn’t be portrayed as a loser, but a victim. Not even a noble loser because that sends a message that all morally driven politics is destined to fail nobly. He was the victim of a crook and liar covering up an illegal war killing our own people and countless innocent Asian peasants. He was the misfortune of competing against a man who had no regard for the Constitution he had sworn to defend.

Looking back now on my phone conversation with McGovern, I think I thought at the time he was being unrealistic. If so, I was wrong.

I think George McGovern deserves to be remembered as a winner.

Correction, Oct. 22, 2012: This article originally referred to the “George Wallace assassination.” Wallace survived the 1972 attempt on his life. (Return to the corrected sentence.)