The Plainsman

Photo by Stephen Vittoria
The fateful election year

of 1972 is mostly remembered for the Watergate break-in that would incinerate Richard Nixon’s presidency 21 months after he trounced George McGovern at the polls. But in some ways it is McGovern’s campaign that has had the biggest impact on American political life. The South Dakota senator’s name has come to rhyme with disaster and, since his decisive (61 percent–38 percent) defeat, the Democratic Party hasn’t risked nominating mavericks, visionaries or improvisers for president — McGovern was the party’s last crapshoot for deep social change.

On the other hand, the transformations that McGovern oversaw while chairing convention reforms in 1969 and 1970 swept away the cigar ashes and gentlemen’s agreements associated with the selection of delegates and presidential candidates, thereby opening up the process to the entire party. In Stephen Vittoria’s documentary, One Bright Shining Moment (which opens today), Gloria Steinem recalls how, thanks to the McGovern Commission rules, the 1972 delegates “looked something like the country.” That was only partly true, though. For what Steinem and other liberal commentators really meant was that the convention resembled them — activists and writers who lived in New York, San Francisco or Ann Arbor. They would soon find out how mistaken they were when their candidate was crushed by a landslide of votes from the vastly white, Protestant heartland.

For all Vittoria’s celebration of his subject, One Bright Shining Moment will leave many with the melancholy awareness that, if the 1964 Goldwater debacle actually marked the birth of an ascendant American right, McGovern’s defeat signaled a decline of this country’s left that, to this day, shows no sign of reversal. Now 83, McGovern spoke to the Weekly by phone from his home in Mitchell, South Dakota, about his 1972 quest for the presidency.

L.A. WEEKLY: The film’s title seems rather close to a Broadway lyric: “There was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” Did people in Washington see in you some sort of Kennedy restoration?

GEORGE MCGOVERN: There may have been some of that nostalgia — it was inevitable. It was so sad how Jack and Robert Kennedy were cut down. But we had the campuses across the country on our side too. There were housewives, workers, elderly, farmers who supported my campaign.

The film shows us how hostile the AFL-CIO was to your candidacy. Now the relationship between Democratic front-runners and the AFL-CIO has reversed — John Kerry didn’t once use the words “labor,” “union” or “working class” in his 2004 nomination acceptance speech. Have unions become scary to Democrats?

I think [candidates] are more cautious about embracing labor, which was one of the pillars of the Democratic Party. I’m not sure Democrats would openly seek labor endorsements today. Both parties scoop up big money from their PACs and committees. We’re all feeding at the same trough; the line between the two parties has blurred. Two out of seven days is spent fund-raising. That has tended to blunt the passion for economic justice within the Democratic Party.

Senator and fellow 1972 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey challenged your right to take all of California’s delegates, even after you won its primary. Wasn’t one of the McGovern Commission’s reforms the ending of winner-take-all primaries and a switch to proportional representation?

Calilfornia remained the exception for one election. Cronkite asked Hubert Humphrey how he could possibly expect to win and Humphrey said, “California.”

It seems astounding that you went into the 1972 convention without having picked so much as one potential vice-presidential running mate. That forced you, at the last minute, to choose Senator Eagleton, who then had to drop out after his mental-health records became public.

We’d planned to use the last month or six weeks before the convention to study the question, but then we got that California challenge. All the other candidates ganged up on me to take away our delegates. We had to work for a month — I was on the phone night and day. I couldn’t have been nominated without those California delegates.

What has been the biggest change in your party since 1972?

Too many Democrats have become overly cautious and almost intimidated by the opposition. There is so much negative campaigning today that Democrats tend to shrink from the battle. We’re not entirely sure what Democrats are against. Are we against the war in Iraq? Is it a mistake and should it be liquidated? Or is it something else and, if so, what is it?

You fought in WWII, yet your patriotism was questioned when you ran for president. Did the attacks against John Kerry’s war record sound familiar?

They showed that McCarthyism is still alive — that you can [portray] a decorated, wounded veteran who volunteered for service as the weaker man against someone who was basically a draft dodger. Democrats tend to be more humane, kindly and compassionate, so they’re not as good at smearing.

Are there things your party should be doing that it’s not?

As a Democrat, I’d like to raise an alarm about the prevailing timidity of the party. I wish the Democrats, after the Katrina disaster, would have said we need to withdraw forces from Iraq, bring back the National Guard and cancel the Bush tax cut. We can’t afford to rebuild the Southern states [otherwise]. Oh, boy — we won the Cold War and we’re practically bankrupt!

For Steven Mikulan’s review of One Bright Shining Moment, see Opening This Week.

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