The Campaign Tapes

Senator George McGovern

Senator George McGovernGeorge McGovern was the 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee, who suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of incumbent President Richard Nixon. McGovern had won the Democratic nomination over the establishment favourite Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. His primary and caucus campaign mobilized a grassroots army of baby-boomer volunteers – many who saw McGovern as the heir to the legacy of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated during the 1968 primary contest. McGovern had inherited Kennedy’s delegates to the ill-fated Democratic Convention in Chicago that year when Humphrey won the Presidential nomination despite not standing in a single primary.

While McGovern’s Presidential campaign against Nixon was a disaster, being successfully portrayed as “too liberal” and lacking judgement over the “Eagleton Affair”, his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination was one that candidates ever since – Obama in particular – have used as a template. Yet, as Howard Dean found out in 2004, it has become a liability to be described as “another McGovern” – shorthand for “unelectable”.

Segments of this interview appear in the documentary film “First Stop, Iowa” and in the book “Vote for Me”. Senator McGovern spoke to me at the McGovern Centre and Library at the Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, on a bitterly cold January day in 2008. McGovern had endorsed his friend Hillary Clinton for President, but had some extremely positive things to say about Obama – in fact, as the nominating contest dragged on into May and June of 2008 McGovern swapped his endorsement to Obama.

The tanned 85 year old didn’t look much different to when he campaigned for the Presidency 36 years earlier – one of the benefits of going bald early perhaps. He was dressed in a smart blue striped business shirt, red striped tie and navy blue blazer above a faded old pair of jeans and even more faded white tennis sneakers. By his side the whole time was his aged Newfoundland dog Ursa, whose milky eyes could hardly see her master anymore - she constantly bumped her large head against his hand seeking a reassuring pat.

This interview is in two parts. The video and transcript for the first part is below. Watch or read the second part of the interview here.



George McGovern: You know who else had a dog like this? Bob Kennedy. He called his Brumus, it was a big dog, it was also the only Newfoundland I’ve even known that was kind of mean... he’d try to bite people and I’ve never seen one like it. I was finally over at his house one time and you know Bobby had eleven children and harassed from morning to night by all those little kids that were trying to ride him... and it spoiled his disposition.

John Barron: Senator... if we could perhaps start by having you explain for us what happened in 1968 at the convention that lead to the push to open up the nominating process in the Democratic party?

McGovern Time Magazine coverMcGovern: Well by 1968 the transcendent issue in American politics was the war in Vietnam – that lead to the to the campaign for president by Gene McCarthy the junior senator from Minnesota, it lead Robert Kennedy to come into the race after that and the so-called establishment of the democratic party was still backing Lyndon Johnson and the ear. And yet McCarthy and Kennedy had a strong following across the country – I don’t think they had enough strength to win the nomination but they had enough that they wanted to be heard at the Democratic national convention. They wanted to have something to say about the platform. But under the old rules that existed then practically all of the delegates to the national convention were picked in back rooms by governors and political leaders in the state without much impact [input] from the Kennedy and McCarthy insurgents and so that lead to a re-examination of the rules and that convention in ’68 where most of the delegates were pledged to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was the one that mandated a change in the rules. So it grew out of ... you might say it was a by-product of the anti-war movement on 1968.

Barron: The convention itself famously became very angry, inside and outside – was that frustration at the party being out of step with a lot of its members the core of that?

McGovern: Yes, that was the driving force behind it because there were thousands of people outside the convention halls who had come there from all over the country and who had worked hard for Gene McCarthy, had worked hard for Robert Kennedy, and then after Robert Kennedy’s death when I took over his delegates they worked hard for me but they were excluded from the convention because the delegates had already been picked and without very much democracy – they were largely picked by the powers-that-be who were identified with the war and identified with the status quo at a time when millions of Americans, especially young people wanted to change the status quo and were deprived of that opportunity by the way those delegates were picked. There weren’t very many women at that convention, there weren’t very many young people, there weren’t very many black people, or brown people or yellow people – it was largely white, middle-classed, middle-aged males... I’m not again people like that; I was a white, middle class, middle-aged male myself but they shouldn’t dominate everything, and that was the problem at that ’68 convention.

Barron: Can you recall the mood of the convention, because it was an extraordinary year in American history and to an extent it came to a head on the floor of the convention that year?

McGovern: Well it was an interesting mood. Many of the people who had come there from across the country at their own expense were dedicated supporters of these candidates who were advocating change in the United States, especially advocating an end to the war in Vietnam. So there was a certain amount of excitement and enthusiasm and hope but then that clashed with people who were satisfied with the way things were. So you had an enormous amount of tension at that convention. I was watching most of it from across the street at the fourth floor of the hotel where I was staying – I saw the clashes in the street between the young anti-war protesters and the Chicago police. In a way I kind of felt sorry for both of them These policemen were young people too, they thought they were doing their duty, maintaining the order and they resented these equally young people who were out in the streets shouting slogans and waving banners and pushing and shoving – so you had a clash between two cultures, the police who represented that status quo, who wanted to preserve order, who wanted to keep the peace, and these protesters who wanted to do everything they could to get the attention of the country, to get the attention of the press and say ‘we want that war stopped’ and we want a different change of priorities at home’. I think the protesters were afraid of the police and the police were afraid of the protesters – I’ve talked to some on both sides and those young police feared they might just be overwhelmed by uncontrolled mobs of people. So I may be one of the few people who was there who was sympathetic to both sides.

Barron: So the decision was taken to set up a commission to look at how the nomination process would happen and you were central to that commission – how did you go about examining how you could do it better?

McGovern: Well, what the convention ordered was a study – it was called a mandate – to look at the rules under which we selected delegates who would in turn be the people who would choose the presidential nominee. We were told several things; first, that we had to come up with a nominating process that was timely – you couldn’t pick the delegates a year ahead of time before you really knew what the issues were. They had to really be picked in the election year - in this case all of the delegates had to be picked in 1968. When they got to Chicago, they found out many of the delegates had been picked in ’67, and many so early in ’68 that the opposition candidates [McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and ultimately McGovern] never really had a chance to mobilise properly. So that was one change we were asked to work out.

George McGovernSecondly we were asked to provide that the delegations from each of the 50 states had to be reasonably representative of the population; if half the population were women, then half the delegates – roughly, we didn’t set up quotas., but roughly, reasonably representative – and that happened. After that convention about half the delegates were women, many of whom had never been to a convention before in their lives. Keep in mind women couldn’t even vote in the United States until World War One, so we’ve come a long way that we mandated in the period after ’68 that they had to be represented in the selection of the delegates who were going to determine the presidential nominee. No longer could you just have a bunch of us old guys sitting in a back room saying ‘well, we’ll put Joe on and Bill on and Ralph and Charles, you know, they’re good old boys’ – those days were ended by the reforms ordered by the ’68 convention.

Now there were other things we were asked to change in the rules but I think those were two of the main ones, and probably the most important one was that delegates had to represent the people as a whole. There were some big states at that ’68 convention that had 50, 60, 70 delegates at the convention and only 3 or 4 women in the whole group and maybe nobody under thirty and the central issue was the war in Vietnam where everybody was under 30, all those young guys dying out there and their spouses back home and their brothers and sisters ... that war was fought by youth, like most wars. And yet those people were not at the convention. So we made those changes in those rules, I presided as the chairman of a 28-member commission that was picked from all over the country. I didn’t try to participate too actively in the deliberations because I thought as chairman I should let everybody be heard and we would try to work out a consensus and that’s what we did.

Barron: In that process were you also mindful of the fact that you were thinking of running again in ’72?

McGovern: Yes, I did think about that - but I didn’t try to shape the rules to help George McGovern – I was perfectly happy to take my chances in an open system and we did nothing in that commission to make it easier for me except to carry out our mandate to give everybody a shot. I didn’t have a single person on that commission who had been committed to me in ’68 – they were all people who had been for Robert Kennedy, for Gene McCarthy and most of all for {Vice President} Hubert Humphrey. Most of the delegates on that reform commission were put there by my friend Hubert Humphrey – and he was my friend, even though we disagreed sharply on the war in Vietnam. But we didn’t go in there to draft rules that would help nominate George McGovern four years hence, that may have been partly one of the by-products of it, that it made it easier for a reform candidate to win but that wasn’t our purpose.

Barron: So sitting down ahead of the 1972 campaign, as you assembled that campaign what was the thinking, what was the strategy, how were you going to use this new system and untried system – how did you see it?

McGovern: Well what we did frankly was to copy pretty roughly what Jack Kennedy had done in 1960 – he did it even under the old rules by going out and winning more primary elections than anyone else. And we made up our minds that was how he won that election – he wasn’t the choice of the party chieftains – not Harry Truman, not Lyndon Johnson the Majority leader of the Senate, not Sam Rayburn the speaker of the house, not even Eleanor Roosevelt or Adlai Stevenson or other major figures in the party. Jack Kennedy had to go out and win popular primary elections - so we made that our number-one objective.

George McGovernWhat we did in order to get our delegates selected in these primaries in addition to working very hard in the primary election states, we organised a grassroots army that was stronger than anything any presidential contender had had – right down to the grass roots. We’d go from door to door, farm to farm, factory to factory, business place to business place, recruiting people {at} the university campuses, the churches, the labour halls, and we built a network that we called the “Grassroots” that I think was the best in American history in terms of mobilising the kind of person you’d see around your neighbourhood every day. And so we had workers in every precinct and every caucus and every state organisation across the country – not every state but the ones that had the most important primaries. And to everybody’s surprise outside our organisation we started winning primaries. We finally won eleven state primary elections – including the two biggest ones; New York and California – and basically that wasn’t a brand new technique but what was new was the grassroots structure, but the idea of concentrating on winning primaries we picked up from John Kennedy who was something of a hero to many of us in my campaign.

Barron: How do you, in practical terms, go about organising a grassroots campaign when you are in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire... how do you win a grassroots supporter?

McGovern: You first have to get a smart, ambitious, well-motivated state-wide organiser. We decided that we had to do well in Iowa since that was the first one – and by the way ’72 was the first time they’d had the caucus system in Iowa – we didn’t invent that it came out of the people of Iowa. But we put a good person in Iowa. In New Hampshire we had a terrific young guy, a fellow by the name of Joe Grandmaison – he had been an old party establishment person who got fed up with the war in Vietnam and decided he was going to go for some alternative candidate and he liked what I was saying, and I talked with him personally and we recruited him as our state-wide coordinator. I don’t think we could have done so well in New Hampshire as we did without Joe Grandmaison working eighteen hours a day – he never went home it seemed to me. We did the same thing in Wisconsin – we got Gene Pokorny and a young lawyer by the name of Dixon, Bill Dixon – and they coordinated Wisconsin. These people were so dedicated that I had to tell them at times to slow down and don’t knock themselves out but they went after it hammer and tongs. What they did was create a state committee – a McGovern committee of committed supporters – and they’d say ‘you take this district {and} you take this district {and} you take this district’ and they then branched out and then the district leaders would pick individuals in the precincts and so on. It took us a year and a half to set up that organisation.

I did something in ’72 that had never been done before in American politics – I announced, formally, two years ahead of the election. Coming from a little state like South Dakota with only three electoral votes – 700,000 people in this state – that’s one precinct in Chicago – we knew we had to begin early – I knew that – and so we started this grassroots building way ahead of time, and the thing that drove it was that war in Vietnam. Nixon had said when he was running for President in 1968 that he had a secret plan to end the war. Four years later the war was as wild as ever. So there was a great revulsion in the country against that war and I was seen as the one person who had been against it from the beginning and was determined to end it if I got elected. So we always had that. That was the campaign ammunition that kept us working those long hours.

Barron: That groundswell that emerged around the campaign, to what extent was that helped by the demographic reality that the baby-boomers where coming up to voting age – many were voting in their first or second election?

McGovern: Not only were we helped by the baby-boom, but we were helped by the fact that for the first time, in ’72 eighteen year olds were given the vote, whereas before you had to be 21 so all those people in that four year period after ’68 who turned 18 – all of those were eligible to vote in “72. Now I have to say this to you, they worked hard in the nomination bid, they didn’t realise as they should have that you have to get registered in order to vote in a general election – you may be able to vote in the caucuses and the conventions and primaries but you couldn’t vote in the general election. Also a lot of them grew weary of the battle as time went by so we didn’t have the big turnout of the 18 year olds and people who were 19 and 20 and 21 who had been below that four years earlier, when we got to the general election against Nixon.

Barron: Can I take you back to the campaign in Iowa before the caucus vote, what are your memories of that process of retail politics going from factory to factory and coffee shop to coffee shop and holding these small events?

McGovern: Well it wasn’t anywhere near as important in the public mind then as it is now because ’72 was the first time and it was an experiment and people in Iowa weren‘t quite sure how the [Caucus} thing might work, that you had to go to someone’s living room or a fire station or a church basement or something - so it was a little awkward in ’72 even to us, and we didn’t give the kind of attention that it got in this current political year {2008} where Barack Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton spent months out there and had big teams of people and spent hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars on that caucus system in Iowa.

But {in 1972} it was important, we didn’t neglect it, and I was out there quite a bit considering that it was not one of the bigger states. I didn’t give it as much time as I did New Hampshire which we were more familiar with – everybody knew about the New Hampshire primary, they’d been operating for years, but we found out that those Iowa caucuses carried a certain amount of weight – I didn’t win in Iowa, in the caucuses, it was Ed Muskie, who was favoured to win the nomination won – but I came in much stronger than anyone suspected so that people in the press wrote columns or had me on television saying “George McGovern in an AMAZINGLY strong second-placed showing”- it was almost as though it was better to be second than first the way that I was seen to have done so well. The same was the case in New Hampshire – I didn’t win New Hampshire, but I suspect millions of Americans thought I did because the press was so startled that this junior senator from a little state like south Dakota, challenging Ed Muskie who grew up right next door in Maine, a long time governor in Maine then a United States Senator – that I came close to him... so it became magic to have a strong second-placed showing or an unexpected strong second-placed showing so that by the time I got to Wisconsin I won and that was another “strong showing” – and so we started building that momentum in Iowa in the caucuses and that momentum was strengthened in New Hampshire and by the time we got to Wisconsin we won the state.

And I knew from that point on that I was going to be the nominee.

Barron: The role of the media was very interesting because of the expectations game you talked about and the way you talked about them representing a second-placed showing as being like a victory – were you surprised at the new role that emerged for the media through this new more democratic nominating contest?

McGovern: Yes I was. It made it much more interesting to the press covering these bids for the nomination and the focus almost shifted to the nomination fight rather than the general election. There was almost kind of a letdown for the election of ’72 and the press was just fascinated with these new rules, they were fascinated to see their mothers out beating the doors around the neighbourhoods – they were fascinated with their kids getting involved with politics and black people and Hispanics and others. And suddenly too it was a trail-blazing election and the press knew that – they knew there was something new here, they knew that an anti-war voice could cut through the choir, the barriers and the business-as-usual character that had frequently been true in campaigns.

As McGovern’s campaign for the Democratic nomination gathered pace in early 1972, frontrunner Ed Muskie was showing the strain. He was reported to have shed tears while berating the publisher of the influential newspaper The Manchester Union Leader from the back of a flatbed truck. Muskie was alleged, in a letter printed by the paper, to have used or at least laughed at the use of the word “Canuck” to describe people of French decent. The paper also implied Muskie’s wife Jane was a drinker who used profane language – it was later revealed much of the anti-Muskie misinformation was being fed by individuals associated with the Nixon White House Committee to Re-elect the President. The break-in at the Watergate complex in 1972 was part of the same effort. {For more, see Campaign tapes interview with Nixon staffer and conservative Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan)

Barron: The media also had a role in the difficulties faced by Senator Muskie – the whole “Canuck Letter” in New Hampshire and the way that was being reported and his response to what was being said in the press about him and his family – what are your thoughts on that particular incident and how it affected the campaign?

George McGovernMcGovern: I would like to try to puncture one myth that was cooked up by the press, that Ed Muskie lost his chances for the nomination because he shed some tears in New Hampshire. I think that what happened was that the [press, that had been widely predicting a Muskie win, had to come up with something to save their own predictive skills – they said, well this is what happened, he would have won if he hadn’t shed tears in the snow of New Hampshire. We had a pollster by the name of Pat Caddell – a young Harvard guy, we paid him $50 a week – he became a multi-millionaire after the McGovern campaign – but he was reporting what was happening in New Hampshire every day, he had his pollsters going door to door and he’d come in to me and say, “well I think you’re now at about 18.55 and Muskie is about 49” and we were going up every day. After Ed broke down and maybe shed a tear or two because of this newspaper publisher who had been attacking his wife, and Ed was tired as we all were at that stage, and he may have shed a tear or it may have been snow melting on his face as he said – we found in the next few days he went up in the polls. Why? Well because who wouldn’t be sympathetic to a hardworking politician who was human enough to shed a tear when his wife, whom he loved dearly, was being assailed by this lousy publisher at the Manchester Union Leader.

So I think that was a creation of the press. Now once they created that myth and it went out across the country maybe that hurt him somewhat, I don’t know, but I would wager my reputation as a politician that all things taken into consideration, that incident did not cost him one vote. If it cost him ten thousand votes, let’s say, it picked up fifteen thousand.

Barron: What does that say about the media and the convention wisdom that they can arrive at – this is what happened and why...?

McGovern: Well it shows that they are human beings and they make mistakes, just like us politicians make mistakes, just like the voters make mistakes – we all make mistakes. I think that was an error on behalf of Ed Muskie. I don’t think Ed Muskie lost the presidential nomination because he shed a tear or two in New Hampshire in the snow i think if anything he might have picked up a few points – and if anything it just shows even trained media people, trained journalists who are by any test a cut above the intelligence of the average person – you don’t get to be a prominent columnist or a prominent news commentator without knowing a lot and without being very intelligent. But even with people like that can make mistakes – especially if they are looking for a reason about why they were wrong. Here was the whole national press corps practically had Ed in the White House, all of a sudden here was this guy McGovern coming up and they announced the results of New Hampshire an d i was just a hair behind him – “oh that’s just because of the crying, we were right all along, Ed would have one but he cried in the snow” – in retrospect it looks silly don’t you think?

Barron: Is that something you can anticipate and exploit in the media, this idea that they will run a narrative, build a candidate up but also look for an opportunity to say “oh they’re old news, now we have a new frontrunner”?

McGovern: Yeah, I think so. I think they are looking for new twists and turns and they welcome the chance to start on a new lead or a new theory or new candidate, a new issue. Yes, I think people tend to get fatigued both in the press and among the candidates as the campaign progresses and there’s a kind of a hunger so why not knock the frontrunner a few pegs down and turn it into a horserace – I think there’s some of that. I became the victim of that later on...

At this point the interview is interrupted by the Senator’s mobile telephone ringing, when the camera rolls again he returns to the Ed Muskie “crying” incident in 1972, and that leads to discussion of a similar event in New Hampshire in 2008.

McGovern: You know Ed was about 6’4”, 250 pounds, big athletic-type guy with a big shock of thick hair that I always envied and he had a big burly overcoat on and he looked huge, and I think that, and perhaps a tear or two – he always said it was snow melting on his face – I would have said “ you’re damned right I shed a tear, wouldn’t you if your wife being assailed by somebody and you couldn’t do anything about it?” – I don’t think he should have been apologetic about it – I would have said “yes, many times I’ve felt like shedding a tear, I’ve shed tears over what our government is doing – like Thomas Jefferson, when I consider that god is just I tremble for my country, yes I was on the verge of tears...” I think he could have turned it even more – “you show me a man who doesn’t cry and I’ll show you a man who doesn’t belong in the White House“. Don’t you think?

Following Barack Obama’s stunning victory in the 2008 Democratic Iowa Caucuses, Hillary Clinton headed to New Hampshire with her campaign in serious trouble. After having been the frontrunner for a year she was seen as vulnerable and showed that vulnerability when she became emotional while talking to a supporter who asked her how she was coping – the exchange was caught on camera and became major news in the hours before the New Hampshire vote – which she won.

George McGovern and  Hillary ClintonBarron: It’s interesting the comparisons that were drawn between Senator Muskie and Senator Clinton crying before the New Hampshire primary – was it in the context of that piece of history that became big news or was it about something else?

McGovern: I didn’t think that hurt her a bit, it didn’t show weakness... I wouldn’t want to be married to a woman who didn’t shed a tear once and a while, and particularly under those circumstances where she’d been working for months to win the nomination then it falls through out there in Iowa – she hadn’t counted on a defeat in the first test and I don’t think the country held that against her, if anything I think it helped her. Because it showed that she’s a human being, she’s not a crass, hard-driving aggressive person without feeling just struggling for power, she’s got feelings like the rest of us and things disappoint her ... a didn’t think it hurt her a bit, I told her that.

Barron: Pundits and reporters have drawn more comparisons between the 1972 and 2008 primary seasons – do you see the resonance there, do you see the comparisons?

McGovern: I do, I do see the comparison. The strongest one is that we are engaged again in a murderous, unnecessary and illegal war. The same factors that were present in Vietnam except that in Vietnam we lost 58,000 young American soldiers and so far it’s about 4,000 in Iraq, but the same folly, the same exaggerated fears that required our intervention – that’s the strongest parallel. I still think that’s the number one concern in voters in the year 2008, getting that miserable war behind us – the economy is a big issue as it was in ’72, but in each case these unpopular wars were the transcendent issue. I wouldn’t have been the Democratic nominee in ’72 – a young senator out of a little state like this had it not been for the revulsion against the war in Vietnam and I was hitting that issue harder and longer and more knowingly than any other candidate in ’72. I don’t think the issue has been defined quite that sharply by any candidate this time and that’s too bad because it’s the most urgent issue before the country, even a rich powerful country like the United States can’t afford the blood-letting, finance-letting struggles of the kind that we are now involved with in Iraq. I think one other similarity with ’72 is that you do have a much greater grassroots effort being made now than we’ve had perhaps in any campaign since ’72 – Barack Obama particularly had a great organisation built at the grassroots in Iowa and that’s how he won even though as a black man who in some quarters has to overcome that barrier there wasn’t a heavy black population in Iowa – he still won that state of Iowa – so that’s another similarity with ’72 – a young guy out of Illinois, even a black man which hither-for would have been regarded as a handicap, did very well in Iowa, as he has since then.

Barron: There have been a number of comparisons drawn between the campaign of Barack Obama and your campaign of 1972 – do you look at Barack Obama and feel some empathy for him?

McGovern: I do, I like him very much. I have endorsed Hillary Clinton, partly because I’ve known her for 35 years – she and her husband Bill Clinton became my coordinators in the state of Texas in ’72 and so I have appreciated them ever since then. I don’t always agree with her stands – I certainly didn’t agree with her vote giving Bush her blessings on Iraq...

I admire Barack Obama very much. I think he has the makings of another Abraham Lincoln - and not just because he comes from Springfield as Lincoln did – but because he has some of the same capacity to tap deep moral and spiritual principles and to make them politically acceptable

I’d like to see Hillary break the gender barrier that has kept any woman from ever becoming President and then eight years from now I’d like to see Barack Obama break the racial barrier that has prevented a black person from ever reaching the White House... I hope I live that long, I’d like to see that.

George McGovernI’m 85, but I’d like to live to be 100 – I didn’t used to think about things like that but I do now because I want to see some of these things happen. I want to see every hungry schoolchild in the world getting a good nutritious school lunch every day under the auspices of the United Nations – these are some of the things that even as an old guy I want to see done before I say goodbye to this earth.

On May 7th 2008 George McGovern called Bill Clinton to inform him he was now endorsing Barack Obama and said Hillary Clinton should drop out of the protracted nomination contest. A week later McGovern told a crowd of 6,000 in Sioux Falls that Obama was a “ripple of hope and faith ... which has become a mighty river” and that his election would change the way the world viewed the United States “Next January, when President Obama, an American patriot and a devote Christian, when he puts his hand on the bible and says ‘I do’ – the entire world will see America in all of its glory.”

The second part of this extensive interview is available here. McGovern talks about the successes and failures of his 1972 campaign and reflects on how America would had changed had he defeated President Nixon that year. He also talks about the deaths of his friends John and Robert Kennedy – does he believe in a wider conspiracy to kill the Kennedy’s?

George McGovern

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