By TOM LAWRENCE The Daily Republic
Amnesty, abortion and acid.
That was the damaging slogan hung on George McGovern in 1972, and it became a matter of contention in the Democratic presidential contest 40 years ago this week.
McGovern was campaigning in Nebraska, trying to win the May 9, 1972, primary. His primary rival was his old friend and neighbor, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn.
McGovern had won the Massachusetts primary in a landslide and finished in a virtual standstill with Humphrey in the Ohio contest.
Suddenly, the liberal senator from South Dakota was the Democratic frontrunner.
That didn’t set well with a lot of Democratic politicians and others in the political establishment.
Conservative columnist Robert Novak stuck the label on McGovern in an April 27, 1972, column written with his partner, Rowland Evans.
Quoting an unnamed Democratic official as his source, Evans wrote that “people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot. Once middle America — Catholic middle America, in particular — find this out, he’s dead.”
Pundits soon converted “amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot” to “the three A’s: amnesty, abortion and acid.” The power of alliteration made that unflattering tag stick.
To this day, McGovern says he was unfairly labeled. His daughter Terry’s arrest for marijuana possession in Rapid City during his bid for a second Senate term in 1968, which McGovern has written he feels was trumped up by a Republican activist in an effort to embarrass him and damage his campaign, helped shape his attitude.
He said he favored reducing penalties for marijuana and ending prison sentences for minor drug violations, but never advocated legalizing pot, much less LSD.
McGovern said he did not favor abortion on demand but felt it was not a federal issue. In the days before the 1973 Supreme Court’s decision in the famed Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion across the land, McGovern favored leaving it a state issue.
The anonymous quote that stuck that damaging label on McGovern was from Sen. Thomas Eagleton, D-Mo. Three months after that secret blast, Eagleton was McGovern’s running mate on the 1972 ticket, at least for a few days.
Eagleton swore Novak to secrecy, but after his death in 2006, Novak revealed him as his source.