McGovern, Humphrey exchanged fire in televised debates

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a weekly series examining the events of 40 years ago that led to Mitchell native George McGovern’s Democratic presidential nomination.

The Daily Republic

George McGovern hadn’t expected the attack, at least not as fast and furious as it came at him.

Not from his old friend and fellow liberal Hubert Humphrey. Not from the man who shared a small-town South Dakota upbringing with him.

Not from the friend who helped him find a home in the Washington area when he was elected to Congress, and had once brought him hot soup when he was sick.

But it had happened, and it hurt.

McGovern and Humphrey held three nationally televised debates in the waning days before the June 6, 1972, California primary.

It was a big prize, 271 delegates, with the winner taking all. McGovern had built a big lead in delegates, and a win in California would all but guarantee his nomination.

Humphrey had sought the presidency in 1960, losing to John F. Kennedy, and had been the Democratic nominee in 1968. He knew he was almost out of chances at the White House.

So he went after his old friend. Hard.

McGovern was a “fool” to suggest a sweeping welfare program, he said.

McGovern was promising $1,000 per person, and that would bankrupt the country, Humphrey charged. And he was too weak on defense, Humphrey alleged.

McGovern fought back, saying he was merely proposing a sensible, decent national welfare program.

The admittedly pro-peace candidate noted that he had seen war up close. McGovern was a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, while Humphrey had not served.

McGovern said his views were not that outrageous. In fact, they “only seem radical to people who are wedded to the past,” he said.

The debate ended after a testy hour. Two more were held, but neither was as sharp and compelling as the first. Humphrey even apologized for using the term “fool.”

McGovern said in 2011 that he forgave his old friend for the sharp attacks, but he has never forgotten them. They still sting today, he said, although he understands why Humphrey did it.