December 12, 2007

Getting Revisionist With McGovern

In the latest issue of Democracy, Rick Perlstein makes the case that most accounts of George McGovern's landslide loss in 1972 miss the mark:
McGovern lost because he was an isolationist? If you had said that in 1972, people might have looked at you funny. Whatever his preference for deep cuts in the defense budget, Republican surrogates who hauled out the isolationist charge were labeled "silly" by no less an honest broker than the New York Times' Scotty Reston. Over the following six years–according to my ProQuest search–the words "McGovern" and some variant of "isolation" were mentioned in the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune a mere six times.
And, of course, McGovern lost to a candidate who was also campaigning on a pledge to end the war. But what about the whole "acid, amnesty, and abortion" thing?
Well, like I said, his position on abortion was the same as Nixon's. His position on pot followed the President’s National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. And amnesty was enacted, in limited form, by Gerald Ford. And the person who cast the false aspersion, Novak has recently revealed in his memoirs, was ... Thomas Eagleton.
Perlstein argues that McGovern's substantive positions hurt him far less than his breathtakingly incompetent campaign: The disastrous flip-flop on whether to keep Eagleton on the ticket, for instance, or the 21-year-old novices crunching polling data. Plus, Nixon's dirty tricks were effective, and many prominent Democrats had a visceral loathing for McGovern. (Evidently, Hubert Humphrey—in an anecdote that's in dire need of follow-up—phoned Nixon on Election Night to congratulate the victor and intone, darkly, that "I did what I had to do" to keep McGovern from winning.)

Anyway, I'm not saying this is the final word on the matter, but since the specter of McGovern seems to get summoned anytime a less-than-maximally-hawkish Democrat opens his or her mouth, the counter-CW take is worth reading.

Update: For anyone interested, Rick Perlstein e-mails with a few more points that got left on Democracy's cutting-room floor:
1) In April of 1971... every viable Democratic presidential candidate, including Humphrey, went on TV in an extraordinary joint appearance and implored Nixon to set a date for withdrawal from Vietnam—including Scoop Jackson (who differed from the others only in that he said Nixon shouldn't publicly announce the date. So if people want to indict McGovern for his stance on Vietnam, they also have to indict his opponents in the Democrats' civil war—Humprey and, to a lesser extent, Jackson. It was just self-evidence to EVERY Democrat that we had to get out, and self-evident to Nixon that he had to appear to be getting out.

2) "Come home America" was a quote from Martin Luther King, and though of course it had isolationist resonances, in the context of both King and McGovern's speeches it was not literally geographic--it was a figurative call for America to "come home" to its founding ideals.

3) Democrats only started accusing each other of "McGovernism," equating that with "isolationism" starting in the early 1980s, in the context of debates about Central America--ie, if we ignored Communist encroachments there, Democrats would lose 49 states. It was an accusation Walter Mondale pioneered against Gary Hart (McGovern's campaign manager) for his announced reluctance to commit ground troops to protect oil in the Persian Gulf and (according to a Mondale spokesman) for continuing "the McGovern legacy of resistance to military spending and American involvement abroad." (Then, of course, Mondale lost 49 states...)

4) By 1986 you could be accused of "McGovernism" for basically paraphrasing things Nixon and Kissinger said in 1972. There was a columnist in the Post named Stephen S. Rosenfeld (I hadn't heard of him before) who excoriated a Hart foreign policy position paper for claiming "superpowers no longer dominate the world and 'the diffusion of power is the defining reality of our age.'" You can look it up (for example, Nixon's July 6, 1971 speech in Kansas CIty to a gathering of media executives, about which your colleague John Judis writes brilliantly in his 1992 book Grand Illusions: Critics and Champions of the American Century): that utterance was Nixon-Kissingerist to a T. And yet this Rosenfeld called it "one of those amorphous generalities that seem to come with the Democratic Party card."

Thus my ultimate point: "McGovernism" is a word not signifying an idea but a cudgel to short-circuit thought and honest historical reckoning.
-- Brad Plumer 3:47 PM || ||