by Ray Toubi
Nobody really remembers George McGovern— a man who, had things gone more favourably, been elected president in 1972.
He wasn’t, instead Richard Milhous Nixon got a second term, before some unscrupulous journalists started sticking their noses into things and proving Nixon to be the very crook he claimed not to be.
Nearly all I know of the US electoral process comes from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72— a series of articles written for Rolling Stone whilst following the two candidates around. Most of the focus is on George McGovern, due to some slight liberal bias on the part of Thompson, the fact that Nixon didn’t do much campaigning (far too busy playing with a new tape recorder he’d found), and the fact that Nixon’s campaign team didn’t really want Thompson nosing around.
In fact Thompson was granted one interview with Nixon in the back of a moving car. He wasn’t allowed to talk about politics. Instead they had a brief conversation about American Football, which apparently went quite well. Then again most people seem like nice chaps when they’re not secret bombing Cambodia…
McGovern became the focus of the book, as the incumbent President doesn’t have to campaign quite so hard for his party’s nomination. McGovern did, and he had to fight off some big establishment names, like Hubert Humphrey (not to be confused with Humbert Humbert). Despite being a fifty year old square in 1972, McGovern represented the more progressive, liberal side of the Democrat party and ran his campaign on that basis.
A large part of his campaign was encouraging young voters, and securing their appeal… and also appealing and reaching out to minority groups. His campaign for the nomination, and later Presidency, can be compared to Barack Obama’s… had Barack Obama been an old white southerner.
However, his vice-presidential pick draws more comparisons to John McCain’s. After a long search McGovern chose Thomas Eagleton. Unfortunately whilst Sarah Palin only came across as mentally unstable, Eagleton was mentally unstable. It was revealed that he had undergone ECT in the 1960s— the same electro-shock therapy enjoyed by Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
McGovern publicly said that he backed his man ‘1000%.’ As any football fan knows, a vote of confidence is swiftly followed by a sacking. Medical staff informed McGovern that should something terrible happen to him in office, it would be very bad for the United States to have the clinically depressed Eagleton running about in charge. Although Eagleton wasn’t fired, he was asked to withdraw.
McGovern’s campaign never recovered.
But also he never had a chance because he was up against Richard Nixon, a personal friend of Satan. Several things are overlooked about Watergate— most importantly the fact that of all the bad things Nixon did it was by no means the worst. He just lied about it for longer. He bombed Cambodia— a non-participant of the Vietnam war— until it resembled the fiery depths of hell he now inhabits. The US dropped Agent Orange on Vietnam, resulting in generations of physically deformed children. And thousands of dead civilians.
But since every minor and major scandal since 1972 has had ‘-gate’ wedged on the end, that’s how Nixon is remembered. More a loveable old rogue with a catchphrase than a corrupt politician with blood on his hands.
But Watergate is what is remembered, what has been turned into several films, what doesn’t bother Ronnie Van Zant in Sweet Home Alabama. But it has largely been forgotten that the intended target of the secret recordings was Senator George McGovern. He was not robbed of the Presidency— his campaign was poorly managed in the end, and voters rarely vote someone out of office mid-war (not Nixon, not Bush… Jimmy Carter only served one term, and is remembered as a bad President almostly solely because he didn’t start any conflicts)… but he has been robbed of the recognition he deserves— even if is just as ‘victim of botched espionage.’
Had McGovern run a better campaign things might have been different, but probably not. Even without the Eagleton Affair— still widely regarded as the worst gaffe in campaign history, despite the emergence of Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as hot contenders for the crown. Nixon would likely still have won, but Watergate would have been a much bigger deal, and McGovern’s role would undoubtedly have been more prominent as it unfolded.
As it was, he knew he was going to lose more than a week before the polls. He still had time for one more legendary soundbite for everybody to forget about and ignore. At a rally McGovern was heckled by a Nixon supporter. McGovern’s measured response was ‘kiss my ass.’ The man deserves recogntion for that if nothing else.
George McGovern was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1922. He became state senator in 1963, serving until 1981.
After politics he authored several books on US history. He died in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on Sunday 21st October 2012. He was 90 years old.