Reading Hunter S. Thompson’s fine book on the 1972 presidential campaign today will trigger a case of reverse déjà vu: there is no lack of Fear and Loathing in the 2008 Presidential Election.
Like Obama today, George McGovern offered the Democratic Party, and the American people, a fundamental change of direction. Both candidates claimed the “New Politics” as their mantra, and both found they had struck a chord with the populace. McGovern assembled what Thompson called “The Freak Vote” – kids, hippies, blacks, Latinos, the non-mainstream – and brought them into the party fold – much as today Obama is bringing back into the fray those who have given up on politics. Then as now, the Youth vs Wisdom battle was in full swing, as a new generation clamored to release themselves from the shackles of their parents’ bygone era.
In 1972 the country was similarly bogged down in a terrible war; American boys were dying in great numbers for no good reason and people were finally getting pissed about it. McGovern wanted to end the war; Nixon said that would be tantamount to defeat – today’s version of “the terrorists win”. Dr. Thompson succinctly described the atmosphere in which a criminally insane megalomaniac had control of the reins:
With December  winding down, there is a fast-swelling undercurrent of political angst in the air around Washington, a sense of almost boiling desperation about getting Nixon and his cronies out of power before they can finish the seizure that began three years ago…
There is a sense of muted desperation in Democratic ranks at the prospect of getting stuck – and beaten once again – with some tried and half-true hack like Humphrey, Jackson, or Muskie…
Humphrey – Hubert Humphrey – was the Hillary Clinton of ’72, the Party’s standard-bearer. In fact, the Clintons are even more emblematic of the Party brand than Humphrey was, having actually held the White House for two terms and then moved into the Senate, but the comparison stands. Humphrey had nobly led the Dems to embrace the Civil Rights movement in the ’50s, but after serving as VP to Johnson he was tarnished by the Vietnam War. When Eugene McCarthy challenged the incumbent Johnson for the nomination in ’68, he got so much support Johnson felt compelled to drop out. Humphrey stood in for him and became the semi-incumbent War Candidate, while McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy ran anti-war campaigns. After Kennedy was assassinated, Humphrey narrowly defeated McCarthy with a vote at the convention, leading to rioting in Chicago. The Party was officially split between the Establishment and the Freaks.
When ’72 came around the Freak Vote had increased by about 4 million because of the recently passed 26th amendment allowing 18-year-olds to vote. These acid kids and potential draftees were terrorized by the prospect of running warmonger Humphrey against war chief Nixon – kind of like today’s Freaks remember that Clinton voted for the war. McGovern picked up the peace vibe and ran with it. He also had a reputation as an outsider from South Dakota, and his national organization was really on point – like Obama’s today – and they absolutely cleaned clocks with superior strategy and grassroots support.
But then, somehow, even as a suspected criminal, even with a crazy war going on, Nixon was reelected. Voter turnout was the lowest since 1948, at 55%. Nixon carried 49 states – imagine that – 49 states. It was a complete drubbing, an embarrassment. What went wrong?
In a poignant lesson for Obama, the beginning of the end for McGovern was his unfortunate selection for the VP slot. Tom Eagleton was a relatively unknown senator from Missouri – seemingly a guy just like McGovern, not from the establishment. The truth was that the big names like Ed Kennedy and Muskie had turned McGovern down because the primary race and especially the convention had been such a knock-down, blood-in-the-streets battle that most of them didn’t want to touch it. McGovern even offered it to Humphrey himself! But no one wanted any part of whatever it was they saw McGovern and his Freak Vote doing. In the end, they sabotaged him – but that’s another story. Eagleton was a political hack who saw his meal ticket about to be punched. He jumped on board at the chance. The McGovern people figured, at least he’d always been against the war…
Well soon it came out that Eagleton had been hospitalized with manic depression and that he’d had electric shock therapy. A decision had to be made, and McGovern said he backed Eagleton “1,000%” – but three days later he asked him to resign from the ticket. This is when his public perception as a man of the “new politics” cracked. Here, actually, was just another politician who would say one thing but do something else. As the Good Doctor wrote:
[McGovern’s] whole image of being a… first a maverick, anti-politician and then suddenly becoming an expedient, pragmatic hack… who talked like any politician… He began talking like a used car salesman, sort of out of both sides of his mouth, in the eyes of the public, and he was no longer… either a maverick or an anti-politician… he was no better than Hubert Humphrey.
The Eagleton affair was just the beginning. The Republicans painted McGovern as a radical peacenik hippie liberal who was for “acid, amnesty and abortion.” This lit a fire under the radicals of the right and really mobilized that vote. Nixon said ceasefire talks in Vietnam were making progress: “Peace is at hand,” uttered Henry Kissinger. The President had been vaguely implicated in the Watergate burglary, although it wasn’t full blown until after the election – there was a poll out where people were ranking Watergate as “not important at all.” And things got worse for McGovern every day until the slaughter: 60%-37% Nixon, an absolute bloodbath.
What can Obama learn from this so that he does not suffer the same ignoble fate?
Do not pick Hillary Clinton as your VP. Do not attempt to apologize or make amends to the Old Guard which you have just defeated. Do not tack back towards their vision of the country, but rather be confidant in victory, and set the agenda for the country.
David Sirota of In These Times, in a piece I highly recommend reading, fleshes out the failures of the old, comfortably ensconced power players of the Democratic Party:
[P]utting Clinton on the ticket could directly undermine the mandate of the party’s primary: the rejection not of Hillary Clinton, but of Clintonism itself.
Clinton backers have long said Clintonism is all about moderation, negotiation and smart positioning in the face of Republican extremism. But it really is the politics of capitulation, triangulation and obfuscation in the face of money and power.
Sounds a lot like what our friend Dr Thompson cautioned in 1972:
If George gets stomped in November, it will not be because of anything Richard Nixon did to him. The blame will trace straight back to his brain-trust, to whoever had his ear tight enough to convince him that all the bullshit about “new politics” was fine for the primaries, but it would never work against Nixon – so he would have to abandon his original power base, after Miami, and swiftly move to consolidate the one he just shattered: the Meany/Daley/Humphrey/Muskie axis, the senile remnants of the Democratic Party’s once-powerful “Roosevelt coalition.”
We need Obama to be that ultimate progressive dream of a leader who gets it, who will not be shackled by the limits of old thinking. Who will tell people hard truths without spouting ridiculous code words rendered meaningless by political word play. We already see the danger in events like Obama’s speech at AIPAC, in which he said that Jerusalem should be an “undivided” capital of Israel – pretty much a deal-breaker for the Palestinians and a departure from current US policy. We saw it with his terrible choice of Jim Johnson to head his selection committee for running mates – a connected insider who was awful for the campaign’s message of change. Obama backpedaled on both of these, but how successfully remains to be seen.
We do not want to see capitulation like this: Senator Obama, you won the nomination by suggesting a radical change in attitude and policy, you will win the presidency only by sticking with this vision.