I think Goldwater would have had a better chance in 1968 than 2012, but I don’t know if I can envision a scenario where Goldwater could ever win 270 electoral votes. McGovern, I believe, would have an easier time today because what he was in 1972 was really a sneak peek at what the Democratic Party would become in the 1990’s until now.
I will say this about Barry Goldwater — while he certainly scared the crap out of a lot of people in 1964, there were a lot of other factors that played a big role in LBJ’s landslide victory. When people went to the polls in November 1964, they did so less than a year after JFK’s assassination. With everything going on in the world, there was a hunger for political stability and LBJ offered that. Americans didn’t want to have three different Presidents in a span of less than 15 months. Even Goldwater knew that. He went into that 1964 campaign knowing that JFK’s assassination had all but guaranteed that Goldwater was fighting a losing battle.
Don’t get me wrong. LBJ’s effective assumption of the Presidency and his efficiency in working with Congress to get things accomplished from November 22, 1963 until November 3, 1964 also had a lot to do with the landslide. And Goldwater was too extreme for a lot of Americans. But the 1964 election would have been far closer had John F. Kennedy been seeking a second term against Barry Goldwater. Kennedy would have won, but there’s no way he would have won 61% of the popular vote like LBJ did in 1964.
George McGovern, the former South Dakota Senator, 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee, and longtime advocate for minorities, the poor, and the hungry, died this morning in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 90-year-old former Senator’s death was not unexpected as recent reports have detailed his failing health, but McGovern was actually quite active in politics and the issues he believed in until earlier this year.
McGovern was nominated by the Democrats to face incumbent President Richard Nixon in 1972 and routed in both the popular vote and Electoral College, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But McGovern’s legacy extends far beyond his unsuccessful 1972 bid for the Presidency. As liberal as Barry Goldwater was conservative, McGovern was a tireless advocate for the poor and the hungry, not just during his career as an elected official, but throughout his life and up until his death.
After the turbulent 1960s, as the Democratic Party was reshuffling itself demographically into what it has been for the past 40 years, it was George McGovern who welcomed and embraced minorities, women, young voters, and gays. Some people call this “progressive” in 2012; George McGovern thought that way in 1972. He was way ahead of his time — even for many Democrats. As he later joked about his landslide loss to Richard Nixon, “I opened the doors of the Democratic Party — and twenty million people walked out.” Indeed, in the 1972 election, nearly 1/3rd of all Democrats voted for Nixon instead of McGovern.
The GOP successfully painted McGovern as a radical, peace-seeking pacifist in 1972, and tried to portray him as somewhat of a wimp. McGovern was a dove on Vietnam, but he was no radical, no pacifist, and certainly no wimp. Several days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, McGovern enlisted in the Air Force and flew 35 combat missions over Germany, Italy, and Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Yet, peace was certainly an aspect that drove McGovern throughout his career, and helping those who were less fortunate was his ambition for public service. The war that McGovern constantly sought to fight was a war on hunger. It was a concern that he was vocal about during his time in the House and later in the Senate, and President Kennedy appointed McGovern as the first director of the Food For Peace program. Later in life, that fight to feed the hungry continued. Nearly 20 years after leaving the Senate, President Clinton (who, along with Hillary, managed the McGovern campaign in Texas in 1972) named him as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN’s Agencies for Food and Agriculture. For the last decade of his active life, McGovern was a United Nations’ Goodwill Ambassador on World Hunger for the UN’s World Food Programme.
Though the Democratic Party distanced itself from McGovern following the 1972 election because of the magnitude of his defeat and the Nixon campaign’s successful portrayal of him as a radical, McGovern’s impact on today’s Democratic Party cannot be denied. The voters that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 — African-Americans, women, Hispanics, gays, and young voters — were the people that George McGovern opened the doors of the Democratic Party to in 1972. He was a monument to American Liberalism and his legacy cannot be denied. Nearly all who worked with or against George McGovern — Democrats, Republicans, or Independents — respected his honesty, his ability, and his heart. In a divisive time when many politicians have forgotten the definition of public service, they should look to people like George McGovern and Bob Dole who personify the true intent of public service.
In the bipartisan spirit that he worked while seeking solutions that would help the most people possible, we should honor and remember George McGovern — not as a forward-thinking father of modern American Liberalism, and not even as a war hero — but as an American who represented the best of what our country can be and dedicated his life to the most faithful definition and purpose of public service.
Nixon was popular because, despite what happened to him and despite how personally revolting he ended up being, he was tremendously qualified to be President, incredibly intelligent, legitimately creative in thought (particularly in foreign policy), and people believed that he could follow through on his potential.
We think of Nixon as a bumbling, sweaty crook because our most searing images of him are when he was being a bumbling, sweaty crook. We remember Nixon as the President who had everything fall apart and was forced to resign in disgrace and, really, that’s how he should be remembered because that’s his greatest legacy.
However, he was not always a bad politician. Nixon was a strong campaigner, even though he hated campaigning. Nixon was a gifted public speaker, even though he was a hopeless introvert. Nixon could connect with an audience extraordinarily well, even though he all but hated the people. Nixon was a good politician despite himself, and that accounted for his popularity, as well. President Nixon had to have been doing something right. In 1972, he won an astounding 520 electoral votes and carried 49 of the 50 states. That wasn’t all because he was a crook.
It’s always so hard to say whether someone would have been a better President than the President who was actually elected. We don’t know if they would have faced the same troubles, we don’t know what the differences in their policies would have looked like, and we don’t know how they would have reacted to the same crises as the Presidents who were actually elected.
In George McGovern’s case, he had spent enough time in Congress to have gained a sufficient amount of experience for the Presidency. McGovern was extremely liberal, however, and he wasn’t what the country was looking for in 1972. I think the nation needed someone more moderate than McGovern, so he would have ran into some major challenges had he been elected and the country had transitioned from a Nixon Administration to a McGovern Administration.
Of course, McGovern wouldn’t have put the nation through Watergate. For that alone, perhaps we could say that he would have been a better President since Watergate was one of the worst crises in American History, almost irreparably damaged the Presidency, and caused distrust by Americans towards their government that continues to resonate to this very day.
It was the crowning moment in Richard Milhous Nixon’s long career of political ups-and-downs. For the fifth time, Nixon had been a candidate on the national ticket (twice as Vice President, three times as President). In 1952 and 1956, the focus was on the top of the ticket, Nixon’s running mate, Dwight Eisenhower. In 1960, Nixon narrowly lost to — and some would say was the victim of theft from — John F. Kennedy. In 1968, Nixon finally won election to the Presidency, but he did so with some bitterness: the country was in shambles and the two people he wanted to oppose more than anyone else in the election — Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy — had respectively quit and been murdered during the turbulent campaign. Not only that, but in victory, Nixon had garnered only 43.4% of the vote — a full 6 percentage points less than he had earned in his 1960 loss to JFK.
On November 7, 1972, however, Nixon’s “Silent Majority” spoke loud and clear — and truly gave him both a majority victory and a strong mandate for his second term in the White House. Nixon trounced Democratic Senator George S. McGovern on election night. His popular vote victory was 61%-38% and Nixon’s margin in the Electoral College was even larger, 520-17. Nixon won every single state in the country except for Massachusetts. Nixon even won McGovern’s home state of South Dakota.
As the election returns rolled in and Nixon’s family, supporters, and staff celebrated, the man who had received the votes of 47,169,841 of his fellow Americans that day to be their President noted that he felt “a curious feeling, perhaps a foreboding, that muted my enjoyment of this triumphal moment.” In his memoirs, Richard Nixon elaborated further, “I am at a loss to explain the melancholy that settled over me on that victorious night…To some extent the marring effects of Watergate may have played a part, to some extent our failure to win Congress, and to a greater extent the fact that we had not yet been able to end the war in Vietnam. Or perhaps it was because this would be my last campaign. Whatever the reasons, I allowed myself only a few minutes to reflect on the past. I was confident that a new era was about to begin, and I was eager to begin it.”
The new era began the next morning. At 12:00 PM on November 8, 1972, President Nixon gathered his Cabinet in the White House. Nixon seemed tired and was suffering from a painful toothache. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger noted that the President seemed “grim and remote”. Nixon’s loyal Chief of Staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman was at his side as the President nonchalantly thanked his Cabinet and then described his recent readings about Benjamin Disraeli and how Disraeli described a need to refresh the British government and rid it of the “exhausted volcanoes” in William Gladstone’s Cabinet. Nixon’s Cabinet was perplexed and curious as to where the President was headed. He had just won a landslide victory in the Presidential election, but he spoke as if he had lost everything.
After a few more minutes of talking about his plans for a second term that wasn’t “lethargic” such as those of some of his predecessors, Nixon simply stood up and walked out of the Cabinet Room, headed across the South Lawn, boarded Marine One and flew to his Camp David retreat. When the President stands, everyone stands but as soon as he left the room, the Cabinet sat down and looked at Bob Haldeman, who took over the meeting. Haldeman handed pieces of paper out to the Cabinet and said, “You’re all a bunch of burned-out volcanoes”. Then he immediately demanded everyone’s resignation. Nixon had won one of the biggest victories in American electoral history, and 24 hours later, he was basically firing everyone who had helped him to do so — earlier in the day, he had done the same thing that he did to the Cabinet to his White House staff.
Henry Kissinger summed it up by saying that, “It was as if victory was not an occasion for reconciliation but an opportunity to settle the scores of a lifetime.” For Richard Nixon, victory was never enough. He needed destruction. Nixon got rid of his exhausted volcanoes, but he was sitting on top of another volcano named Watergate. His abbreviated second term, which had been won the night before, would end less than two years later in his own personal and professional destruction.