1972, Richard Nixon Defeats George McGovern: Watergate
During the 1972 election, incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon won an astoundingly large margin, garnering 520 electoral votes. Despite his huge advantages during the election, President Nixon and his campaign operatives engaged in unethical and illegal activities during the campaign. The ultimate victim of Nixon’s crimes turned out to be Nixon himself, as he was forced to resign in 1974 after his misdeeds were uncovered. The unraveling of Nixon’s criminal conspiracies led to reforms for good government.
On the Democratic side, the contest for the nomination turned out not to matter, since Nixon could not have been beaten that year. But the intense struggle revealed divisions in the party, some of which have persisted ever since.
In the Republican race for the nomination, Nixon faced two opponents. From the right, there was Ohio’s U.S. Rep. John Ashbrook. Like many conservatives, Ashbrook was concerned about Nixon’s unilateral imposition of wage and price controls, disregard for principles of constitutional government, diplomatic outreach to Chinese genocidaire Mao Tse-Tung, and policy of “détente” with the Soviet Union’s tyrants.
From the left, Nixon was challenged by California U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey. McCloskey’s top concern was the continuing U.S. role in the Vietnam War. When Nixon had taken office in January 1969, there were over half a million U.S. troops in Vietnam, and Nixon had cut the number to 156,000 by the end of 1971, with further reductions in progress. For McCloskey and other opponents of the war, this was too little too late.
Even McCloskey and Ashbrook together could not stop Nixon from winning large majorities in the primaries and caucuses. They held Nixon to 68% in New Hampshire, but thereafter, Nixon always won at least 81% of the vote in every Republican primary. At the well-organized and tightly-controlled Republican National Convention in Miami, only a lone delegate (a New Mexican for McCloskey) voted against Nixon’s renomination.
Among the Democrats, three contenders started with widespread name recognition, and millions of supporters. The frontrunner, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, had been the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee in 1968. Some polls in 1971 showed that Muskie was running neck-and-neck with Nixon.
Next was Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. He had served as Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President from 1965-69, and had been the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968, losing a very close race to Nixon. Humphrey had been on the national stage since 1948, with a long career as a civil rights champion. But he was tainted by his association with Johnson, who had deceived the American public in order to massively escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the latter years of the Johnson administration, it was said that the President had a “credibility gap.”
Alabama Governor George Wallace had been making a national name for himself since 1962, as the nation’s most famous segregationist. In 1968, he had run for President on the ticket of the American Independent Party, and won five southern states. For the 1972 race, he abandoned overtly racist appeals, and concentrated his fiery speeches on economic populism.
There were 13 other Democratic candidates, few of whom had any credible chance to win a significant number of delegates, let alone the nomination. Among the vanity candidates were Brooklyn congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (who had been a serious candidate in 1968), North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford, N.Y. City Mayor John Lindsay, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, and Hawaii Representative Patsy Mink.
But everyone was out-foxed by South Dakota Senator George McGovern. McGovern was in some ways a Democratic version of Republican Ronald Reagan, the Governor of California. McGovern and Reagan each appealed to the strongest ideologues of their parties. At the 1968 nominating conventions, McGovern and Reagan had thrown their hats in the respective rings at the last minute. Although neither McGovern nor Reagan had a realistic chance at the 1968 nomination, they won hundreds of delegates, and laid down markers for future presidential runs.
Hubert Humphrey had garnered the 1968 Democratic nomination without entering a single primary. The Democratic Party wanted a more open system, and appointed a commission to reform the nominating rules. The commission was co-chaired by McGovern and Donald Fraser, a liberal U.S. Representative from Minnesota. The recommendations of the McGovern-Fraser Commission (formally, the “Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection”) required much more transparency and openness is the selection of presidential delegates. The reforms drastically reduced the ability of the party hierarchy to choose delegates.
To comply with the McGovern-Fraser rules, some states adopted binding presidential primaries. Although the majority of states still used caucuses, the caucuses were now wide open to control by ordinary voters, who could choose delegates notwithstanding the wishes of the party bosses. The reforms enormously benefited McGovern, who was popular with Democratic voters, but not with the party leadership.
In Senate voting records, there was not much difference between McGovern, Muskie, Humphrey, and the other Senators who were running (such as Washington’s Henry “Scoop” Jackson). All of them were do-good advocates of an ever-expanding federal government, with nearly limitless faith in the ability of big government to fix every human problem.
But Muskie, Humphrey, and Jackson were from the Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy mainstream of the Democratic Party, and thus strongly anti-communist. McGovern’s heart lay with Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice-President Henry Wallace (1941-45), who had bolted the Democrats in 1948 and run as an independent, in opposition to President Truman’s strong anti-communism.
McGovern based his primary campaign on the Vietnam War, saying he had been “right from the start” in fighting American involvement. This was not quite correct, since McGovern, like all but two Senators, had voted in 1964 for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized President Johnson to escalate the Vietnam War. However, McGovern had become a staunch critic of the war much earlier than many elected Democrats, who had only decided that the war was a terrible mistake after the war was no longer being managed by a Democratic President.
Yet it was not the war issue per se that made McGovern anathema to so much of the Democratic Party. The problem was McGovern’s supporters, the “McGovernites.” Many of McGovern’s supporters were rank-and-file Democrats of very liberal persuasion. This was no different from Reagan, who attracted many traditional Republicans who were very conservative. Yet both candidates also attracted large numbers of fringe supporters from beyond the party’s previous boundaries.
Reagan had garnered plenty of volunteers and votes from members of the John Birch Society, an organization devoted to conspiracy theories. (For example, that President Eisenhower’s brother Milton was a Soviet agent.) Reagan in his 1966 gubernatorial campaign had defused the issue, explaining that if Birchers were supporting him, that meant that they were agreeing with his ideas, not that he was agreeing with theirs.
McGovern, though, could not shake off his association with his own fringe—in part because he needed them to win the nomination. To American moderates, many McGovernites appeared to be a repellant collection of America-hating quasi-Marxists, men-hating radical feminists, white-hating racial agitators, draft dodgers, and lazy hippies demanding more welfare in order to buy more drugs.
McGovern himself was eminently sober, decent, and patriotic, having served on a bomber crew during World War II. But a significant number of voters decided that they wanted nothing to do with a candidate who had supporters like McGovern’s.
Nevertheless, McGovern managed to pull off one of the greatest upsets in the history of presidential politics. He initiated what would become the modern practice of starting a campaign very early, announcing his candidacy in January 1971. Although his budget was tight, McGovern built strong organizations around the country. His team of miracle workers was headed by campaign director Frank Mankiewicz (a former aide to Robert Kennedy) and campaign manager Gary Hart (who would later be elected Senator from Colorado).
McGovern’s team harnessed tremendous energy from volunteers who wanted America to get out of the Vietnam War immediately, and with no conditions except for the return of American prisoners of war. The McGovern presidential campaign was the first to raise large amounts of money from direct mail, a technique that at the time was in its infancy.
The McGovern campaign concentrated attention in the caucus states, where a relatively small number of dedicated activists could produce a rich harvest of delegates. In primary states, McGovern actually won slightly fewer votes than did Hubert Humphrey. But McGovern earned far more caucus delegates than Humphrey.
During the next presidential cycle, for 1976, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter carefully studied Hart’s 1973 campaign book, Right from the Start, as a manual for how an outsider could win the nomination. In 2008, Barack Obama would also win the nomination by out-organizing his opponents in the caucuses; even though Hillary Clinton won more primary votes in 2008 than did Obama, Obama won more delegates, thanks to his far superior caucus machine.
In the primaries, McGovern did well enough to keep his campaign viable, while the rest of the field was winnowed. For example, he won 37% from New Hampshire, while Muskie won 46%–which was a disappointing result for the Senator from the state next door.
In Florida, Wallace won all but one county, and 42% of the total vote, demonstrating that his campaign had staying power. On May 15, Wallace was shot by a would-be assassin, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The next day, Wallace won the primaries in Michigan and Maryland.
As the campaign ground on, Muskie faded, and Humphrey emerged as the best hope for the stop-McGovern forces. The race came down to California’s winner-take-all primary on June 6. McGovern won by 44% to 39%, taking all 271 delegates. This was just enough to secure him a majority at the convention. Although McGovern had won majorities in only four primary states (Massachusetts, Vermont, South Dakota, and Oregon), he had won pluralities in many others, thanks to divided opposition.
The rest of the party would not relent, and attempted to retroactively change the rules, to deny McGovern some of his California delegates. The argument of the Stop McGovern movement was that giving all of the California delegates to a candidate who had not won the majority of California votes was contrary to the spirit of the McGovern-Fraser reforms, which favored proportional representation. At the Democratic National Convention, held in July in Miami, the maneuver failed, narrowly.
The chaotic, contested convention did little to broaden McGovern’s appeal to the general electorate. His acceptance speech, on the theme of “Come Home, America,” was McGovern’s sincere, thoughtful, and well-delivered call for America to abandon foreign militaristic adventurism, and to focus on building a fairer and more prosperous society at home. But the speech was delivered at 3 a.m. Eastern Time, when hardly anyone was watching.
McGovern had been so busy winning the Democratic nomination that the Vice-Presidency was barely considered until the convention was underway. He ended up choosing Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, a Catholic liberal with solid ties to organized labor; Catholics and labor were two elements of the traditional Democratic base where McGovern was weak.
Unfortunately, Eagleton concealed his history of having voluntarily committed himself to institutions for mental health treatment, and having received electroshock therapy. As a result, Eagleton later withdrew from the ticket. In a world where the Soviet Union and the United States each had enough nuclear weapons to devastate the world, the American public insisted on absolute mental stability for anyone who might have his finger on the nuclear button.
So the Democratic Convention had to re-convene and pick a new Vice-Presidential nominee. By this point, the McGovern general election campaign appeared doomed. Half a dozen Democrats turned down McGovern’s offer of the Vice-Presidential nomination. Among those who did not want to be McGovern’s vice-president was a man who was desperately wanted by nearly all Democrats (except for Wallace voters): Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. To the party, Kennedy’s 1971 drunk-driving accident, in which he had abandoned a paramour to drown in a river, was no obstacle. But Kennedy was not interested, and said so repeatedly. So McGovern settled for a Kennedy in-law, Sargent Shriver, who had been an official in the Lyndon Johnson administration.
During the general election campaign, McGovern had to work so hard to try to reclaim traditional Democratic voters that he had little time to attempt to appeal to independents or to Republicans who were dissatisfied with Nixon. McGovern pitched his plan for a federal program to guarantee a job to every able-bodied citizen; any citizen who was offered such a job, and refused to take it, would be cut off from federal welfare benefits. But McGovern continued to make unforced errors—most infamously when he promised to “beg” the North Vietnamese Communist dictatorship to release American prisoners of war.
Even if McGovern had run a perfect campaign (or even if Muskie had been the nominee, and had run a perfect campaign), Nixon had become unbeatable. Although he had no personal charisma, his conduct during his first term had appeared temperate and careful. His détente with the communist dictatorships in the Soviet Union and China was popular with most Americans. He was winding down U.S. involvement in Vietnam. To benefit the President, Arthur Burns, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was pumping up the American economy; in the long run, the Nixon-Burns policy was a direct cause of stagflation (high unemployment, plus high inflation) later in the 1970s; but as of 1972, the Nixon-Burns jolt of pseudo-stimulus made the economy seem good.
Nixon, however, decided to cheat. His administration used regulatory threats to blackmail large corporations into making secret, illegal campaign contributions. Like several of his predecessors and successors (including Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson), Nixon used the FBI and other intelligence agencies to spy on political opponents. He attempted to use the Internal Revenue Service to harass domestic critics. (The IRS refused Nixon, but would engage in harassment on behalf of a different administration in 2010-12.)
Most famously, Nixon’s “Committee to Re-Elect the President” (CREEP) attempted to illegally plant audio listening devices at the Democratic National Party Headquarters, in the office suites of the Watergate hotel and business complex in D.C. The burglars were caught in the act early in the morning of June 17, 1972. Shortly thereafter, two of their off-site bosses were apprehended.
Almost immediately, President Nixon began directing a criminal cover-up. He told his staff to dissuade the FBI from investigating the burglary. The FBI would be told that the burglary was actually a national security operation involving the CIA, which the FBI should leave alone.
Bizarrely, Nixon had set up a secret tape recording system in the oval office, and thus his crimes were recorded. In late July 1974, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that Nixon must release the most incriminating tapes to federal prosecutors. Sixteen days later, Nixon resigned the Presidency, avoiding certain impeachment and conviction by a nearly unanimous U.S. House and Senate.
But the Watergate affair had little impact on the 1972 election. Nixon carried 49 states, while McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Nixon garnered 61% of the popular vote, compared to 38% for McGovern. In only four of the Nixon states did McGovern even come within 10%.
Nixon’s landslide produced no Republican coattails. When incumbent Democratic Lyndon Johnson was on his way to a landslide in 1964, Johnson had worked hard to help members of his party win close races. Nixon did not, devoting all of his political capital to himself.
The pervasive criminality of the Nixon administration began to be revealed in the Spring of 1973, thanks to investigative reporting by the Washington Post, and to a special Senate Committee, in which the three Republican members all put the national interest in good government ahead of any partisan interest in protecting a Republican President. Eventually, Nixon was forced to appoint a special prosecutor. When that prosecutor (Archibald Cox) began getting too close to the truth, Nixon fired him in October 1973; the political firestorm forced Nixon to appoint a replacement (Leon Jaworski) almost immediately. The Watergate investigations spurred further investigations of wrong-doing by the Republican Nixon administration, and by its predecessors, including Democrat Lyndon Johnson.
The Watergate scandal resulted in many reforms. The National Emergencies Act in 1976 repealed a state of emergency that had technically been in effect since 1950, and had been used by many Presidents for nefarious purposes unrelated to national security. A 1974 series of campaign finance reforms limited individual contributions, imposed strict disclosure requirements for all federal campaigns, and provided public funding for presidential campaigns. A 1978 law set up a formal system for special prosecutors to investigate alleged crimes, especially when there was concern that a President might not allow his Department of Justice to prosecute wrong-doing in his own administration. A Senate committee led by Frank Church (D-Idaho) had started out investigating misuse of the CIA by President Nixon, and had discovered that such abuse stretched back to previous administrations. A variety of reforms were enacted to limit domestic surveillance and other CIA operations.
The 1972 nomination of McGovern was one reason why the Democratic Party in 1982 revised its delegate selection rules, so that a large share of convention delegates would be party officials or politicians who were automatically chosen because of their status, rather than because of their support for a particular presidential candidate. This was a partial repudiation of the McGovern-Fraser reforms, and reflected the party’s collective decision that insurgents who could not reach an accommodation with the party establishment should not be nominated.
David B. Kopel is Research Director of the Independence Institute, a think tank in Denver, Colorado. He is also adjunct professor of Constitutional Law at Denver University, Sturm College of Law; and an Associate Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute, in Washington, D.C. He is the author of 16 books and 100 scholarly articles. He was a McGovern volunteer in 1972. http://davekopel.org. Twitter @davekopel
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