McGovern versus Nixon: Another Perspective

W.J. Astore

A loser in 1972 but a winner in life

In the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon destroyed George McGovern. McGovern won only one state, and it wasn’t even his home state. Of course, Nixon soon experienced his own destruction with Watergate, but the fact remains that McGovern and the Liberal/Left wing of the Democratic party never fully recovered from their drubbing in 1972.

And what a shame that was for America. I’ve been reading “The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party,” by Bruce Miroff, and the more I read, the more impressed I am by McGovern’s principled stance against the Vietnam War, and war in general.

Miroff cites a Senate speech McGovern made in September of 1970 that deeply impressed me. McGovern didn’t mince words as he called his fellow senators to account for their complicity in approving and continuing war in Southeast Asia:

Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval [hospitals] and all across our land–young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces, or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor, or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war, those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

Blunt and powerful words! How refreshing they are compared to the weasel words that come from Congress today. Unsurprisingly, McGovern’s principled stance against the war, and his gutsy call for the Congress to do something to stop it, were unpopular among his fellow senators. He didn’t care about them. He cared about saving lives and ending war.

Now, what was Nixon up to? He’d hoped he’d be running against McGovern, expecting he’d be vulnerable to dirty tricks. Reading Miroff, I discovered that Nixon, among other dirty tricks, actually discussed planting McGovern campaign material in the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the man who’d tried to assassinate George Wallace in May of 1972. Nixon’s scheme was only abandoned when it was learned the FBI had already sealed Bremer’s apartment.

Think of Nixon’s scheme here. He was already well ahead of McGovern in the polls, his reelection a near-certainty, yet Nixon would stop at nothing to tear McGovern down. It was such dirty tricks, of course, that would lead to Nixon’s downfall with Watergate.

History shows that Nixon won the election of 1972, but McGovern was the real winner in life. Nixon continued to prosecute a war with devastating consequences; McGovern fought to stop it. Nixon ran a dishonorable campaign; McGovern a hopeful one, an idealistic one, one that called on Americans to live up to their rhetoric of freedom and self-determination and charity.

Who was the “winner” again?

23 thoughts on “McGovern versus Nixon: Another Perspective

  1. As a Centrist Democrat I believe that was the first time I Voted, and I believe it was Sen. McGovern, and he only Won Massachusetts! Then thinking Nixon was going to close down all Mil. Bases in the State Ft. Devens, Westover A.F.B., Weymouth Naval Air Sta. Otis A.F.B. etc., but of course enter “Watergate” then he learned good– had his own Waterloo…

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  2. While working in Washington, D,C. at the time, I had a life sized campaign poster of McGovern which I used to wave at a conservative colleague from time to time.

    McGovern was one of the few and possibly the only B-24 pilot to successfully fly 35 missions without losing his aircraft . Today we know what was happening below to all the bombs, but I’d like to think he only hit ball bearing factories.

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  3. Yeah, George McGovern certainly led a better life than Dick Nixon ever did. His post-senate years I haven’t read much of, but I know he moved away from his native South Dakota, which at middle-age must have been hard, and he went bust running a hotel in Vermont, and he lost an adult daughter to alcoholism, which I think he blamed some to a lot on his senate career interfering with his father responsibilities.

    George McGovern certainly had a good helping of the bad things that come in life. Still, the final appraisal of him and his life and career comes from Bobby Kennedy, who said that George McGovern was the most decent man in the entire US senate. Let that be his epitah.




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  4. The Thomas Eagleton fiasco without a doubt validated the idea that McGovern’s Campaign was slid-shod. The other piece was the Democratic establishment hated McGovern. McGovern had won the nomination by doing an end-around the establishment.

    This lesson of a philosophical outsider to the Democratic Establishment winning the nomination was not forgotten and the backlash echoed into the 2016 Democratic primaries.

    The Hunt Commission was created in 1981 The most prominent result of the commission was the creation of super delegates.


    1. Yes. McGovern and his “insurgency” campaign, with a young Gary Hart at the helm. We can’t have a campaign that’s actually responsive to people and issues, hence the trashing of Bernie in ’16 and ’20. And of course the earlier rejection of principled pols like Dennis Kucinich.

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      1. Yep, the Dem. Establishment certainly subsequently learned how to deal with “insurgents”!! Eagleton was the guy brought down by revelation of having been treated for depression or some such issue, right? Contrast with today–oh no, is he gonna say it AGAIN? you all gasp–when office of POTUS is occupied by someone CLEARLY mentally deranged!!


        1. Yes. I’m reading about that now. Eagleton had been treated for depression, and the treatment included ECT (shock) treatments.

          As McGovern himself said, he really didn’t understand mental illness; in those days, few Americans did. So much stigma was attached to the mentally ill.

          McGovern first said he’d stand with Eagleton 1000%, or something like that, but then he changed his mind. It was a disaster for him, also because it wasn’t easy to find another VP (Sargent Shriver eventually became his running mate).


          1. 1972 was my Air Force exit date (7 Nov 72). Two years later I was a reporter on an upstate New York newspaper (Geneva Times, now the Fingerlakes Times). We had one of the largest of NY State’s asylums, Willard. I did a story on a woman patient who was having a 108th birthday celebration, Tilly Gugenberg. She had been brought over from Germany at age 19 as a domestic and before long was committed. The chaplain told me a story about how the week before he’d returned from a vacation, turned a corner, into Tilly. The first words out of her mouth were “Where’ve you been for two weeks?” The chaplain said that and other indicators were “tells” that she was not insane and had never been. Most patients lose track of such things as time. He guessed that whoever brought her over had made unwelcome overtures and got rid of her by having her committed, essentially “inconvenient.”
            It was a big reminder of how asylums were abused to get rid of people for various reasons.
            Around the same time there was a move to counter such things by removing people from asylums and putting them on the street. This wound up including a lot of people who really did need to be in an institution.
            I further remember a murder where one of Willard’s patients was home on a weekend leave. He killed his mother, sister and brother. I was at the house when the firefighters were there and the husband returned from Ithaca to find out what had happened. The kid who did it went to a neighbors and had them call the police and fire fighters then sat on a rock in front of their house waiting the the sheriff. He was pretty bad off and even the cops took pity on him, despite what he had just done. He should never have been out.
            Some of the “solutions” were broad brushed and remain with us today.

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            1. In the intervening decades since the anecdote you recounted, numerous municipalities have run this “experiment” of dumping the (presumed) mentally ill onto the streets due to “budgetary restraints.” Just another example of this society’s skewed priorities, as it continues its Eternal Wars overseas.

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          2. I have a page off my resume site on the Tilly story. Meant to add this in the original content

            This one has (down the page more than half way) a scanned image of the newspaper page with my first story on the murder. Looking at my blurb I see that I got the casualties wrong: Mother and three young sisters, three who were not there survived.

            And (just because I saw it again and …) this one from 1971 London – I call the guy Lust Buster
            for a lighter note:

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  5. I imagine that that McGovern speech was given in an at-least half-empty Senate Chamber, with any GOPers present shuffling their feet, rolling their eyes, etc. (oh, add Dem. hawks to that scene, too). In today’s world, senators woulda been checking their phones, playing games on them, maybe “sexting”? Weren’t Nixon’s “plumbers” supposedly seeking “evidence” that Fidel Castro, among others, was helping fund McGovern’s campaign? It all seems like a hoot from this distance–and indeed, with a literally mentally deranged (yeah, I said it again) guy in office today, what’s the big deal, right?–but Nixon & Co. played hardball, that’s for sure.


    1. According to the book I’m reading, Greg. the Senate chamber was almost full on that day; and the senators were none too pleased to hear themselves so thoroughly and righteously condemned.

      Nixon probably would have accused McGovern of being buddies with Charles Manson if he could’ve gotten away with it. Trump has that same instinct in him. Remember when he associated Ted Cruz’s father with the JFK assassination?

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      1. Ha!! I’m not even sure of the status of the Cruz-Trump relationship today! Did they kiss and make up? Does it matter in the larger scheme of things? I reckon not. Many of Nixon’s “plumbers,” pinpointed in Jim Garrison’s investigation, were of course “gusanos” (worms)–the Cuban term for those who fled the revolution. Is Cruz not the son of a “gusano”? Maybe The Donald was on to something with this one!!


  6. 1972 was the first election I was eligible to vote in, and additionally I was a strong supporter of McGovern’s anti-war position, so it was a shock when he didn’t just lose but was electorally obliterated. If I had had any doubts beforehand, those results confirmed my suspicions as true — that a large majority of US voters are NOT anti-war in any real sense of the word… that they prefer voting for a manipulative war-monger/cold-warrior like Nixon…TWICE… instead of a principled politico, rare as those were, even back then. Carter was semi-principled, but his election was more of a temporary reaction to the briefly-recognized corruption of Nixon, before Carter-too was creamed by the huckster Reagan. The Dems subsequently ran some moderately liberal candidates who were beaten until Clinton schmaltzed his way into office and finished Reagan’s work.

    My point is that I believe that most US voters are OK with the US being belligerent war mongers, as long as it’s dressed-up with some palpably phony rationalizations… in fact they virtually demand it.

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    1. Yes, a cogent observation. I point out in my to-be-self-published memoir of my resistance to the Vietnam War that the idea that “everybody” or “most” young people in the ’60s/’70s were “longhaired hippie peaceniks” is a myth. Remarkably (?) the greatest support for the Nixon ilk and such a war was found in “fly-over country” (e.g. “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee”!). When the desire for a quick, decisive victory in SE Asia was frustrated by the refusal of the people there to cave, then discontent with the war rose a bit. Imagine a smallish rural town with disproportionately high casualties. “Why?” the citizens would ask. “What is this war really about?” Of course this led some to embrace absurd “theories” about “back-stabbing liberal politicians” and “POWs still being held in Vietnam.” And BTW, that wretched “POW/MIA” flag, it appears, now flies year-round at the Post Office in the rural pro-Trump town where I live. I know an Act of Congress had mandated it be displayed everywhere part of the year, but it’s looking permanent here now. I swear, it is difficult for me to resist pulling that shit down and tearing it to shreds.

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  7. I read last night, Greg, that there was an attempt to connect McGovern to Charles Manson.

    Also, there was an attempt to “Swift boat” him by accusing him of cowardice on his last mission. This went nowhere but the gall of the effort! McGovern flew 35 dangerous missions in WWII, and was awarded the DFC, while Nixon was playing poker in the Navy.

    So many dirty tricks …


    1. Hell, “everybody” knows it was really THE BEATLES who set Manson on his ugly course by sending him personal instructions via their song lyrics!! One of those “Truth is stranger than fiction” scenarios (the truth being Manson’s claim, of course, not that The Beatles did such a thing).

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  8. The 1972 election was the first one that I also voted in. I grew up in George McGovern‘s home state of South Dakota and campaign for him in a heavily populated area of conservative Republicans. I learned a lot about people and how they are afraid of someone else’s view especially when it comes to war. My dad had told me if you go out and knock on doors expect many to be shot in your face.

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    1. Thanks. I think you meant “shut,” but nowadays I’d fear the possibility of being shot. Some people have little tolerance for “strangers” knocking on their doors. And there are too many people who are trigger-happy as well as fearful.

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