Forty years ago, an unsung political convention gathered in Miami. They were there to nominate one of the unlikliest nominees in U.S. history, the staunch antiwar senator from politically insignificant South Dakota, George McGovern. Even if you aren’t a Democrat, their 1972 convention established precedents and has caused reverberations that still echo in national politics today.
1. Demographics. This was the first convention in U.S. history that, well, looked like America. Partly because of the McGovern-Fraser Commission (see #3), partly because of the nature of McGovern’s supporters, this convention was the first to have sizable, borderline-proportionate numbers of women, blacks, Hispanics, and youths in attendance. Before this, each of these groups was afforded little more than a token presence. Ted Van Dyk, Humphrey’s aide, opined that the convention looked like “Woodstock”, and Alan Ginsberg claimed to have done acid on the convention floor. Yet, a number of pioneers– Bella Abzug, Jesse Jackson, etc., were also in attendance, and the 1972 convention was an emblem of “new politics,” of competing identity groups. Conversely, this meant that white men, and in particular white ethnics from big cities, had less sway over a convention than any within a generation. The delegation from Illinois, for example, was dismissed from the convention for not having followed the race, gender and age guidelines, and was replaced. (a reader of this blog and a former editor of Christian Century was part of the replacement delegation, I might add.) So, this is an essay in unintended consequences– by liberalizing the democratic process, a lot of white, working-class, ethnic males felt that they lost ground in this transition– in a very real sense, the Reagan Democrats began here. (As McGovern famously said, “I opened the doors of the Democratic Party, and 40 million people walked out.”) Today, even parties that work against the general interests of women, racial minorities, and young people feel the need to include them in more-than-token numbers at the convention, one subtle way the 1972 convention remains relevant today.
2. Super-delegates are instituted after this convention to avoid its mistakes. During the contested Hilary vs. Obama rivalry in 2008, many Americans received a crash course on “super-delegates.” We all learned the hard way that in addition to elected slates from the primaries, a group of super-delegates– mostly statewide office-holders, congressmen, and elder statesmen– are allowed votes as well. This was a change instituted between 1972 and 1976, when the Democratic leadership privately decided “we must never allow voters to pick someone as unwinnable as McGovern ever again.” The superdelegates, then, are a check in favor of the establishment, although they can sway the conventions’ choice only in an unusually close primary season.
3. Virtually every state has a primary to determine its delegates to the national convention. Prior to 1972, the tricky question of who got to represent a state on the convention floor was a consummate insiders’ game. Governors or mayors would sometimes personally select the members of the delegation. 1968 showed the flaws of this system for all to see. Hubert Humphrey was able to walk away with the nomination on the first ballot, despite not having won a single contested primary. The McGovern-Fraser Commission worked out a system at the end of the convention to correct this, encouraging the 50-state primary schedule we are familiar with today, where the rank and file of a state’s political party choose who the delegates will vote for. (and yes, McGovern totally used the commission to come up with a set of rules that would favor a more populist candidate, such as himself. it pays to write the rulebook…)
4. Choosing vice-presidents is important. Before this election, the selection of a vice-president was often something of an afterthought, or at the very least, an agreement among gentlemen colleagues. You might be asked if there were any skeletons in your closet, and you were expected to answer truthfully, and that was that. Prior to this convention, only Lyndon Johnson submitted his three veep choices- HHH, Eugene McCarthy, and Thomas Dodd- to a thorough vetting, and this was more because of LBJ’s need to humiliate his subordinates. On the eve of the convention, the McGovern team had put little thought into choosing a vice-president, distracted as they were by South Carolina and California’s Democrats modifying their laws to produce less McGovern-friendly delegates. Assuming McGovern would lose, Ted Kennedy, Ed Muskie,Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Abraham Ribicoff, Mike Mansfield, and Gaylord Nelson all turned down his offer to join the ticket. it was nearing the final night of the convention, and time was running short. The only remaining prospect was Tom Eagleton, a young senator from Missouri, who jumped at the chance to be on the ticket, answering in the negative when manager Frank Mankiewicz asked if there were any unsavory elements to his past.
We all know how this ends, right? Eagleton had received a series of electroshock therapy treatments while serving as Missouri’s attorney general years ago. In the middle of the Cold War, where the president has access to “the codes”, Americans were unwilling to put a man with a history of mental illness anywhere near the line of presidential succession. After first affirming that he would stick by Eagleton “1000%” (partly because his daughter Terry suffered from maladies similar to the Missouri senator’s), party regulars prevailed upon McGovern to replace Eagleton. While McG would have probably lost anyway, the Eagleton disaster was the biggest rock one could excavate from the landslide. Incidentally, there’s a great Master’s thesis waiting to written on what this incident reveals about Americans’ relationship to mental illness during this time.
In sum, McGovern’s choice of Eagleton was not hasty by the standard of the day, in fact, it was slightly more invasive than normal. John Sparkman, the running mate in 1952, once said, “If Adlai Stevenson asked me half the questions McGovern asked Eagleton, I would have told him to shove the nomination right up his ass.” But because the Eagleton selection backfired so publicly and so acrimoniously, every subsequent candidate has demanded of their “short list” choices a litany of financial records, health records, and questionnaires about their marital fidelity, personal vices, and so forth.
5. You absolutely have to get behind your candidate or you will lose. There is a humiliating and shameful phone conversation amidst the Watergate-era Nixon tapes where Hubert offers the president his congratulations, making it evident he preferred Nixon over McGovern. When McGovern was nominated, party regulars, furious that they had been outvoted, campaigned for him with great reluctance. With no “get out the vote” effort from these figures, McGovern was at a terrible disadvantage. One has to lose gracefully. The record suggests that divisive primaries– McGovern vs. Everyone in ’72, Kennedy vs. Carter in ’80, Ford vs. Reagan in 76, Goldwater vs. Everyone in ’64– almost always end in that party’s defeat in a general election. Why vote for someone if his or her own party members do not like ’em?
6. Scripting Last semester in Singapore, I loved spending time in conversation with Neil, an 80-year-old marketing professor who still remembers listening to, say, the 1940 or 1944 convention on the radio. He wasn’t sure who would be nominated in many of the cases, adding a sense of drama and unpredictability to the proceedings, as Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey walked away, respectively, with the Republicans’ nomination in those years. It is an interesting question for students of political history: what was the last unscripted convention, where the outcome was not known ahead of time, and was not choreographed in advance? Some might say 1952- when Republicans feuded between its unilateralist and conservative Taft wing, and its internationalist and moderate Eisenhower wing. Maybe its 1968, where the math clearly favored Humphrey, but riots and what Ribicoff called Mayor Daley’s “gestapo tactics” tore the convention apart. I say it is ’72. McGovern’s guys simply didn’t realize they were in charge of the party, leading to a number of bad choices- most notably having McGovern’s acceptance speech, probably the single greatest opportunity to introduce their candidate to the country, be delivered at 3 a.m. Seriously– go watch his “Come Home, America” address on youtube. It is stirring, even today– it is a shame almost nobody got to hear it.