Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, was born 100 years ago today. Although we ended up on different sides of the political equation, it was my great honor and privilege to know this distinguished public servant and consummate gentleman.
Below are some reflections on Senator McGovern taken from my 2013 book, "And Then I Met." I hope that you enjoy them.
* * *
On January 18, 1971, Senator George McGovern (D-SD) announced his candidacy for the 1972 Democrat presidential nomination. These days, White House contenders start running many years before the contest, but back then a candidate announcing almost two years before Election Day was unprecedented. The unknown McGovern needed the time. With heavyweight opponents lining up to run, the press mocked his quixotic effort. At the starting gate he registered only 2 percent in the Gallup poll, earning him the nickname, "George Who?"
Born in 1922, McGovern flew 35 combat missions as a bomber pilot during World War II. Returning home, he earned a Ph.D. and taught history and political science. Elected in 1956 to the U.S. House of Representatives from South Dakota, he gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1960. He served for two years as director of Food for Peace, and then he won a close Senate race in 1962. In 1972, he captured the Democrat presidential nomination, only to go on and lose the White House to Richard Nixon in one of America's most lopsided landslides.
McGovern brought his fledgling campaign to San Francisco in August 1971 for a $3 per person fundraising reception at the Rodeway Inn. His presidential viability appeared so remote that none of my political collector buddies wanted to attend it with me, so I conscripted my little brother Pat to come along. Even at that absurdly low price we couldn't afford tickets, so we snuck into the event.
We stood outside the hotel's front door hoping to see McGovern when he arrived. While waiting we met his lone aide staffing the event, who spoke freely about the problems of running a campaign that most considered a joke and with no money in the bank. He said McGovern usually stayed in private homes during these trips because his campaign couldn't afford hotel rooms.
As we spoke, a banged-up 1960s station wagon pulled forward at the entrance. The aide whispered to us, "If I tell you something, can you keep a secret? There he is now."
McGovern climbed out of the car, combed his thinning hair, put on his suit jacket, and then he greeted Pat and me. There was no danger of breaching the aide's secret because as McGovern walked through the lobby nodding and smiling at people, nobody recognized him. It fell upon Pat to hold the elevator for the understaffed candidate, who rode it upstairs to freshen up in a room that a sympathetic supporter rented for him.
The aide we befriended kept riding up and down the elevator to check on the reception turnout and then reporting upstairs to McGovern. On one of these revolving trips he offered to get an autograph for me. He returned a few minutes later with a signed card. I asked what McGovern was doing when he signed it. "Truthfully," he replied with a smile, "he was standing naked in the bathroom shaving."
About 50 people attended McGovern's reception in the La Paz Room. When he arrived, the woman at the door collecting the entrance fee grew distracted, which enabled Pat and me to slip inside.
McGovern gave an impromptu talk that focused on his commitment to ending the Vietnam War, which was the cause motivating his entry into the race. His style was low key and casual, and he took questions from the audience for half an hour.
The affair ended with him leaving as he had arrived—walking through the lobby in anonymity to his waiting station wagon. But when he returned to campaign in San Francisco eight months later, the dynamic had changed dramatically.
• • •
Question: When is the winner the loser and the loser the winner?
Answer: When the winners and losers are presidential candidates.
The above riddle is a phenomenon of politics, where expectations often count more than votes. The 1972 Democrat presidential primaries are an example of this conundrum. As the gun sounded for the nomination race, Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) remained the heavily favored frontrunner for the three years leading up to 1972.
Universal expectations had Muskie winning New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. George McGovern, still largely unknown after over a year of campaigning, straggled far behind in the polls. On primary night, Muskie did very well. He won almost 50 percent of the vote in a field of five contenders. McGovern lost, but his grass-roots campaign did better than expected with a second-place finish at 37 percent. Immediately the pundits and network anchors proclaimed the meaning of the New Hampshire results in their peculiar version of political algebra:
McGovern lost, but he did much better than the pundits expected
Muskie lost; McGovern won
The following morning, McGovern's name, and not Muskie's, splashed across the headlines. In the upcoming Wisconsin primary, McGovern parlayed his New Hampshire momentum into a stunning first-place victory. This catapulted the near-anonymous candidate only days earlier into the frontrunner position.
The day after his Wisconsin win, McGovern brought his now-energized campaign back to San Francisco. For weeks his local headquarters couldn't give away tickets to his scheduled $25 per person fundraising dinner at the Hilton Hotel. Within minutes of Wisconsin's vote tabulation, the event sold out.
Today, we live in an era where tickets to political events cost thousands of dollars. It's hard to conceive that in 1972 the price tag for admission to a sit-down dinner for the leading presidential candidate at a major venue cost $25. Yet, for my brother Pat and me, the price might as well have been $25,000. We had no money for a ticket, but that didn't dissuade us from trying to get inside.
We took the Greyhound bus from the East Bay (where we now lived) to San Francisco and arrived at the Hilton three hours before the dinner began. We sat in the lobby hoping to see McGovern when he arrived. Not long after we parked ourselves, I saw a chunky man with a buzz haircut and wearing a Hilton blazer staring at us from across the room. He approached, identified himself as hotel security, and he asked what we were doing there. I explained that we had taken the bus from Pinole to see McGovern. Once he learned that we had no dinner ticket, his already unpleasant attitude grew nasty. "Let me give you boys some advice," he said sarcastically. "Get back on your bus to Pinole and get the hell out of here. You aren't meeting anybody in this hotel tonight." Before we knew it, we found ourselves outside on the sidewalk.
Pat and I didn't surrender easily. We snuck back inside at another entrance, but the same guard nabbed us. Tossing us out once again, he warned that any further entry would result in our arrest.
I had an idea. Finding a pay telephone, I called the hotel switchboard, dropped my voice to the deepest baritone a 14 year-old could muster, and I told the operator that I was Senator McGovern's speech writer. I commanded her to put me through to his suite. To my surprise, she routed the call.
Dick Dougherty, McGovern's national campaign press secretary, answered. I explained our situation and he proved sympathetic. He arranged for us to get freelance photographer passes and complimentary dinner tickets at the press table. Dougherty told us to have the hotel security guard call him directly if he gave us any more problems.
We returned to the hotel and waited. It didn't take long for Inspector Javert to find us. He grabbed our arms and started yanking us across the lobby while saying that the police were on the way to arrest us for trespassing. When I told him to call Dougherty to confirm that we had tickets, he refused. Amid the yelling and the tugging, the hotel manager rushed over to investigate the disturbance. After hearing our explanation, the manager picked up a courtesy phone in the foyer and called McGovern's suite. A few moments later, the manager summoned the guard to join him over in the corner. I couldn't hear their discussion, but I saw the guard's face redden as the manager spoke with him harshly while poking an index finger into his chest. The guard stalked away.
The manager returned to where we waited. "Personal guests of Senator McGovern are always welcome in this hotel," he said.
With the event still two hours away, and while we continued our lobby stakeout, I saw McGovern alone and unrecognized strolling from the elevator bank. Pat and I introduced ourselves, and the candidate (in no apparent hurry) settled into a high-backed lobby chair and invited us to visit with him for a few minutes. "I was just going to take a walk around the block," he said with a chuckle, "so I've got some time to kill." When we told him the story of the guard and Dick Dougherty, he laughed. "So—you're the boys, eh? Dick told me about your enterprising effort to join us tonight. We're glad to have you."
I asked how he felt about his sudden vault to the front of the presidential pack. He said he felt reluctant to claim frontrunner status just yet, but yesterday's Wisconsin result gratified him, and he hoped to continue his momentum.
Before resuming his walk, he obliged an autograph request. On an index card he wrote out in longhand and signed his campaign slogan for me: "For Jim, I make one pledge above all others—to seek and speak the truth. With kindest regards, George McGovern."
After thanking him and wishing him luck, we watched as McGovern rode the escalator down to O'Farrell Street for his constitutional.
Later that evening, and shortly before the dinner began, two couples chatting nearby came over to talk to Pat and me. One man in the group said they saw us in the lobby with McGovern earlier and he asked if we had gotten his autograph. I showed him the quotation, and they passed it around and congratulated me on the acquisition. It wasn't until they introduced themselves that we realized with whom we were speaking—movie stars Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, along with pop singer Michelle Phillips from the 1960s rock group The Mamas and the Papas.
Following dinner, Congressman Don Edwards (D-CA) introduced McGovern to the packed and enthusiastic ballroom. I moved from the press table to the stage to snap a few photographs as the candidate urged his supporters to help him win the California primary and clinch the nomination.
At the end of the dinner, and as the crowd departed, I saw California State Assemblyman (later Congressman) John Burton standing nearby. He wore on his lapel a type of McGovern campaign button incorporating the American flag and a peace symbol that I had never seen before (or since). After introducing myself, I told him I collected political memorabilia and asked him to give me the badge. Burton didn't want to part with it, but my zeal wore him down and he relented.
Twenty-four years after he gave me the badge, John Burton and I served together in the State Assembly as colleagues. One day I wore his old McGovern button in my lapel and struck up a conversation with him in the chamber while waiting to see if he recognized my vintage treasure. Sure enough, after a few moments he asked about it. I recounted the story for him. "Those were the good old days," he sighed.
I sought to draw him out: "You mean the good old days when liberalism was on the rise? You mean the days when liberals believed they could solve the ills of the world, and when idealistic antiwar activists marched for world peace?"
He looked at me dismissively. "No," he said. "I don't mean any of that shit. I mean the good old days—when we could take money out of the Assembly Rules Committee budget and use it to pay for our fuckin' campaign buttons!"
• • •
In writing this memoir over 40 years after Dick Dougherty helped create a fond memory for two grateful boys crashing the San Francisco Hilton, I thought he might enjoy this story. I wanted to send him a copy of it to renew my thanks for his help. I looked for his address on the Internet and found this entry, dated January 2, 1987: "Richard Dougherty, former New York bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and press secretary for Senator George McGovern, died of lung cancer Tuesday. He was 65."
Thanks again, Dick. I never forgot your kindness.
• • •
A few years after McGovern's presidential campaign ended, I attended his speech on Cuban-American relations before the San Francisco Commonwealth Club. To a sold-out audience, he called for lifting the longstanding embargo against Cuba, describing it as a "foolish sanction that has weakened [Cuban president Fidel] Castro, but forced a stronger Cuban reliance on the Soviet Union." He also described his recent visit to Cuba by saying that he and Castro made an impromptu visit to the local marketplace: "The warmth of the reception given Castro was enough to bring envy to the heart of every American politician," he said.
Following his prepared remarks, he took a few questions from the floor. When asked if he might seek the presidency again in 1976, he smiled and said, "I knew that question was coming. The chances are 100-to-1 against my running. In all candor, I have no plans to run. I have sought the advice of a few close friends as to what role I should play in the 1976 elections, whether I should speak on behalf of other candidates or whatever, but I will not be a candidate again."
Another questioner noted that Alabama Governor George Wallace, a former segregationist, led most polls for the 1976 Democrat presidential nomination. When asked if he would support Wallace if he won the nomination, his response was emphatic and brief: "No."
At the end of the lunch, he spoke with me about his 1976 decision. I asked under what circumstances he might reconsider. "Oh, I don't know," he said with a shrug. "I'll just have to wait and see what these other guys do."
Three years earlier, as the presidential nominee, reporters and security guards had crowded every inch of his path. Now, just as it was back in the early days of his race, when today's event ended, McGovern left the ballroom and walked through the lobby—alone and anonymous.
• • •
Before I began college classes in 1975, I made my first visit to Washington, and McGovern invited me to visit him when I arrived. A delay in floor votes pushed back our scheduled meeting by two hours, so I waited for him in his Senate office. Finally, his secretary told me he had returned. She took me into the public hallway, unlocked an unmarked door, and escorted me into his private quarters.
McGovern sat behind his desk at the far end of the room. Dressed in a cream-colored suit, he rose from his chair and welcomed me while offering repeated apologies for keeping me waiting so long. "When you do the people's business," he said with a smile, "sometimes the people aren't in a big hurry to get their matters brought to a vote!"
He wanted to know about my trip and my impressions of the Capitol, and he put me at ease with his friendly and unhurried manner. We talked about the upcoming 1976 presidential race as well as his decision not to run again. He said the main reason he had opted out of the race was because his 1972 run had caused deep divisions in the Party and he felt it needed a unifier in 1976. "I'm not sure that my being a candidate and being nominated would do that because several factions of the Party were alienated by my candidacy in 1972," he said. "I do not expect to run for president again."
I mentioned that I had seen a recent Gallup poll (taken after Nixon resigned the presidency). It showed that in a rematch, McGovern would have prevailed over Nixon handily. A wan smile crossed his face. He stepped back and leaned against his desk. "Yes, I saw the poll when it came out," he said. "I was very gratified by it. Do you know why? Because it vindicated me." Then he dropped his voice to a whisper and looked out the window as he said it again:
"It vindicated me."
I brought along the photograph I had taken of him at the Commonwealth Club a few months earlier and asked him to autograph it. He took the photo from me, sat behind his desk, slid on his reading glasses, and studied it carefully. "You took this?" he asked with a touch of surprise at my youthful effort. "You know, it's a very, very good picture."
As he began to inscribe it, I raised my camera to take a couple of candid photos while he signed. When he noticed my camera, he quickly slid off his reading glasses and placed them on his desk. Apparently, even with a humble man like McGovern, vanity prevailed over good penmanship.
• • •
I stayed in touch with McGovern over the years. In 1994, after I won a seat in the California legislature, he remembered his old campaign volunteer of long ago and called to congratulate me on my victory.
Later that year we reunited at a couple of conferences hosted by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), a national forum for conservative state legislators. The liberal McGovern proved an unlikely but very popular speaker before this group.
In August 1994, at one of these conferences, McGovern joined Newt Gingrich (still a relatively unknown Georgia congressman but destined for political superstardom two months later when he led Republicans to seize control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years). More than 1,000 conferees crowded into the breakfast, with many there out of sheer curiosity as to why ALEC had paired this leading American liberal with a black-belt conservative champion.
A Democrat legislator (one of the few at the conference) introduced McGovern, who joked about the dearth of liberals in attendance: "I am pleased to be introduced by one of the select few at this conference who voted right in 1972!" He then related a story about his presidential run:
"One of the joys of running for president is that it gives one the opportunity to visit every state in the Union. In 1972 I carried only one state, but I fell in love with all of them. Pardon me if I say I carry a special place in my heart for Massachusetts [the only state McGovern carried], but I love them all. I remember a time during the 1972 Florida primary when I was to fly in for a large airport rally. When we landed, only a few mechanics were on the tarmac. We later learned that our problem was that we landed in the wrong town. As one of my rivals later noted, "If McGovern can't find the right town, how can he run the country?" America will never know! My parents were old-fashioned conservatives who believed that the least government is the best government. I have often wondered if they had lived to 1972 whether they would have voted for me. I am sure they might have been sympathetic, but it would have been a hard sell!"
Alluding to his famous bent for liberalism, he recalled, "When last I spoke at one of your conferences, I had my arm in a sling. I had fallen down on a slippery Washington street outside the Avalon Theater on a rainy day and broke my shoulder. A Republican neighbor asked me what shoulder I broke. I told him it was my left shoulder. He said, 'McGovern, you're so liberal you can't even fall to the right!'"
After the laughter subsided, he shared that after leaving the Senate in 1981 he had taken his life's savings and bought a small hotel in Connecticut. The hotel failed despite his hiring an adept manager:
"The experience taught me that a small businessman faces a plethora of federal, state and local regulations. My manager burned the midnight oil not trying to make the hotel profitable but to keep up with the compliance requirements of regulations. I was also sued over an injury at the hotel. A drunk left the hotel bar and got into a fight in the parking lot. He was hurt and he sued me, saying the hotel should have provided him more security. We did have a security guard and lights outside, but a small business cannot afford to station the Marine Corps in its parking lot. We won the lawsuit, but not without a large expenditure of money. I was later sued when a lady tripped and broke her hip. These fraudulent and frivolous lawsuits are hurting small businesses."
McGovern called for comprehensive tort reform and suggested three ways it might occur: "The first way would be for self-correction by the American Bar Association, but I do not expect that to happen [laughter]. The second alternative would be for Congress to enact it, but I am not optimistic that will happen. The third route is tort reform in the states, and this is where it has to happen. These excessive lawsuits take the civility out of society. When I fell and broke my shoulder, it was an accident. It never occurred to me to sue someone over it."
The conferees greeted McGovern's remarks with a standing ovation. When Gingrich spoke, he shook his head in disbelief and said, "I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I agree with everything George McGovern just said!"
Following his speech, McGovern and I visited outside of the hotel bar. He wanted to hear my impressions of life in the legislature and how it compared to my years as a trial court judge. He said he took pride in my having started in politics as a boy volunteering on his campaign a quarter century earlier. However, when he told my colleague, Assemblyman Curt Pringle (then assistant Republican Assembly leader and later speaker) that I was one of his favorite Republicans, it caused Curt to question my conservative bona fides—then and now.
A few months later, McGovern and Gingrich brought their act on the road to the ALEC winter conference in Washington. This time Gingrich received a reception reserved normally for rock stars. After having delivered a crushing defeat to House Democrats a few weeks earlier, Gingrich prepared to become the first GOP speaker since 1954.
McGovern reiterated to the audience his thoughts on tort reform, and he cited his failed hotel venture in Connecticut as the policy wake-up call he received. Then, shifting his tone, he took Gingrich to task over comments the speaker-designate had made recently: "Newt and I have become good friends," he said, "but I was bothered when he recently called President and Mrs. Clinton a couple of 'counter-culture McGovernites.' Over the years, I have heard people accused of being radical liberals called 'McGovernites' or 'McGoverniks.' I started as a noun, and now I am an adjective! I must confess I never really understood it. I served in World War II and flew 35 bombing missions. I have gone to war, I was the son of a Methodist minister, and I have been married to the same woman for 50 years. I do not feel I am part of any counterculture."
Lightening the mood, he joked about the results of the Republican sweep of Congress a few weeks earlier. "Judging from your broad smiles," he told the conservative audience, "I can tell most of you enjoyed the results of November 8!" Referring to his own presidential loss in 1972, he related this story:
"In 1972 I lost 49 of 50 states. The first Senate colleague I had run into after my defeat was Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, who had also lost in a landslide. Barry later sent over a cartoon to me with the caption, 'If you must lose, lose big!' I thought it was a joke, but Barry later told me that he was serious. Barry explained what he meant by the cartoon: 'In 1960 Dick Nixon lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy by less than 100,000 votes,' he said. 'Nixon spent the next eight years torturing himself and saying things like, 'If only I had gone to Chicago that last weekend instead of Alaska, I might have won.' George, in our case, it wouldn't have mattered how many times we went to Chicago!"
At the end of his speech, he remained at the head table signing autographs and posing for pictures. Before leaving, he came to my table and said he had heard that I might be running for Congress in the next cycle. "You know, Jim, if you run, as a Democrat I won't be able to endorse you," he said apologetically. "But the fact I can't endorse you doesn't mean I can't take great pride in you if you win."
That meant much more than an endorsement.
• • •
When I went to Congress in 1997, McGovern and I visited occasionally. I last saw him, of all places, when he spoke at the presidential library of the man who defeated him in 1972. At age 88 he gave a talk and did a book signing at the Richard Nixon Library in 2009. As an elegant touch, all the Nixon Library employees and docents wore vintage McGovern campaign buttons to welcome the Democrat Party's elder statesman.
• • •
George McGovern died of natural causes in a South Dakota hospice facility at age 90 on October 21, 2012. I consider it an honor to have known this decent man and devoted public servant.