McGovern’s political legacy turns sour

Last week’s news that George McGovern, the longtime South Dakota senator and presidential candidate had died triggered a flash of memories going back to the terrible summer of 1968.

I was pulled back to memories of the war in Vietnam, political turmoil, violent street protest, assassinations.

Although I admired President Lyndon Johnson in many ways, I could not support his position on the war. So when Bobby Kennedy, who hated LBJ (and who was heartily hated in return) launched his insurgent campaign on March 16, I signed up.

Johnson unexpectedly announced his withdrawal from the race on March 31.

Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4. At that awful time it seemed to me (and many others) that Bobby Kennedy who might be able to bring the country together, as he was the one force who could appeal to blue collar working people, Blacks, liberals and even some conservatives.

I had gone to my parents’ home to celebrate my father’s birthday on June 4. Early on the morning of the 5th, my mother came into my bedroom in tears.

“Bobby Kennedy has been shot!” Oh, my God! The next day, he died without ever regaining consciousness.

Ten weeks later, I decided to go to Chicago to cover the Democratic National Convention. At that time, I was publisher of a small group of newspapers, and I figured I might as well be on the scene for what might be a defining moment in American history.  

When I got there, the streets of Chicago were jammed with armed Chicago police and Illinois National Guardsmen.

A “police riot” had broken out in Grant Park, where many were injured. In the convention hall, TV newsmen, including Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, and other reporters were tear-gassed and roughed up by the police. Security in the convention hall was ultra-tight; I was stopped by security guards multiple times while trying to make it to the floor with my press credentials.

Things calmed down a bit when the lights in the hall were dimmed and a memorial film on Bobby Kennedy was played. As it ended, those of us who had been in the campaign started singing in grief and anger our theme song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” 

In a dispatch from Chicago to my newspapers, I wrote:

“It was an enormous, spontaneous and, at the start, dignified outpouring of genuine emotion and respect, intensified by the fact that on this matter the convention could be submerged in a common feeling. Rep. Carl Albert (the Speaker of the House, who was in the chair) evidently misread the nature of the outpouring and tried to gavel it to a halt. It didn’t work.

“He tried again, and again.  A fourth time.

“And suddenly the convention came very near to going completely out of control.  The demonstration turned into a vast act of defiance against those who lacked the common sense to handle the convention in a humane manner. …

“For in that vast hall of people clapping and crying and singing was sounding the death knell of the old-style political system.”

McGovern’s time came in 1972

The convention ultimately rejected McGovern, who had gotten in the race as a last-minute stand-in for those Kennedy delegates who did not want to vote for his chief anti-war rival that year, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy. McGovern went on to chair a party commission that changed radically the party rules, reducing the power of the old pols in the smoke-filled room.

Four years later, that system worked to make McGovern the nominee. But he ran one of the most inept campaigns of all time, and ended up losing in one of history’s greatest landslides.

And the power of the old pols was largely replaced by the system of primary elections that today are the main device for selecting candidates.

At the time, these changes were hailed by most (including me) as valuable ways to open up the party and make it more democratic. But as time has passed, I’ve come to feel that primary elections are lousy ways to pick candidates.

The old bulls who used to inhabit the smoke-filled rooms knew very well the candidates, their weaknesses and strengths. Their power depended on making informed choices between the candidates. It’s been usurped by clever marketing, sound bites and TV ads of the sort we’re experiencing in this year’s election, nearly half a century after the bitter chaos of Chicago.

Back in 1968 on the convention floor, I saw McGovern as a reformer, the successor to Robert Kennedy. Today, in 2012, I think of him as a good and decent man who unknowingly and unintentionally changed American politics for the worse.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Nick Fleezanis
Tue, 10/30/2012 - 9:08am
Dear Phil, How does the average voting citizen attempt to make the changes that are necessary to alter the political environment so heavily stacked against us? The political parties have created such a divisive environment, polarizing us into camps that refuse to listen or meet on common ground. Change is needed, but the money is so powerful that is squelches any form of change or resistance to the establishment. I see no leader or organization that has a chance to make things better. Is there a way?
Gene Markel
Tue, 10/30/2012 - 10:06am
Today’s politicians have turned to fear of an uncertain future and its dire consequences. FDR stated, ”The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. It is best to rise above Fear. Fear is the enemy of reason. Fear pushes one to Anger. Anger leads to Hate. Hate leads to despair. What awaits us in the election of 2012? In looking back on the events of the last two years and the change in the political climate, I am drawn to another time and place. It brought me to the words of Robert Fitzgerld Kennedy at the University of Kansas March 18, 1968 for they ring true today. Quote: “For this is a year of choice -- a year when we choose not simply who will lead us, but where we wish to be led; the country we want for ourselves -- and the kind we want for our children. If in this year of choice we fashion new politics out of old illusions, we insure for ourselves nothing but crisis for the future -- and we bequeath to our children the bitter harvest of those crises.”
Tue, 10/30/2012 - 2:17pm
"Their power depended on making informed choices between the candidates. " Such a trite phrase that we hear repeatedly when people feel there will not be the results they want. To make such a phrase have meaning there needs to be a description of what constitutes informed. If we are to evaluate a candidate for office what should we be considering in making our choices so we can be informed? If we are evaluating a ballot proposal what are the factors we should be considering? I notice Mr. Power wants us to be informed but somehow never seems to provide what factors constitute being informed, he will only tell us what he wants. I wonder what constitutes being informed to Mr. Power. "been usurped by clever marketing, sound bites and TV ads of the sort we’re experiencing in this year’s election, nearly half a century after the bitter chaos of Chicago." As best I can recall from my high school civics class was campaign advertizing, clever marketing, campaigning similar to what we see today was there for John Adams, so to say the marketing, sound bites and TV ads have usurped being informed is to ignore a history of such campaigning. As best I can tell the ads are only as effective as what the people are listening for. I wonder when Mr. Power wrote this article if he had been paying attention to the Presidential campaigns, if he even watch the polling. It seems recent polls suggest that people can make their choices in spite of Mr. Power claims. I would offer that those opposed to Gov. Romney had spent 10s if not 100s of millions on ads defining Gov. Romney for months and months, polling seemed to suggest they were having an impact. However, after the first debate it appears by polling that all that advertising was for naught, from trailing by a wide margin to being tied in a matter of weeks would suggest that people we making their choice in spite of all that marketing and advertising. If Mr. Power were right about the marketing and TV usurping people being informed how does he explain the changed? I wonder how informed Mr. Power is; is he only listening for what he wants to hear?