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 and run for the White House.
By TOM LAWRENCE
If there’s one thing George McGovern was trained to do well, it was debate.
McGovern was a champion debater at Mitchell High School and at Dakota Wesleyan University. He also taught speech and debate at DWU.
So it was only natural that during the 1972 presidential campaign, McGovern challenged President Nixon to a series of debates.
“If he thinks his own record is better than the changes I propose, why is he afraid to defend the record in face-to-face debate?” McGovern asked on Aug. 10, 1972.
McGovern needed to change the subject, and he also needed to boost his campaign after being forced to discard Tom Eagleton as his running mate and choose Sargent Shriver as a replacement vice presidential candidate.
A poll published the week McGovern issued the debate challenge showed him trailing Nixon 57 percent to 34 percent, with 9 percent undecided.
Nixon didn’t care to meet McGovern in a debate, however, and not just because of his big lead.
In 1960, he debated Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy four times. It was one of the most famous public debate series in American history and all were live on TV.
The public and media perception was that Kennedy won the crucial first debate by appearing confident, well-informed and very telegenic.
Nixon, who had been sick and had lost weight, appeared ill-at-ease, his clothes fit poorly and he sweated under the hot TV lights. He declined offered makeup assistance and was declared the loser of the debate.
It may have made the difference in that razor-close election.
No debates were held in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat who took office after Kennedy was assassinated, avoided his Republican challenger, Sen. Barry Goldwater. Kennedy had promised to debate Goldwater.
Johnson, never a skilled debater, also cited the equal-time provisions of the Communications Act of 1934, which could have allowed every minor-party candidate access to the airwaves for a like amount of time.
In 1968, Nixon and Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, did not debate. Humphrey, a South Dakota native who was then the vice president, sought debates but Nixon refused.
After the debate-free 1972 campaign, it appeared the 1960 presidential debates were a one-time event, But they resumed in 1976 as President Gerald Ford, a Republican, debated Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Ever since, they have become a standard part of the presidential campaign. But that didn’t do George McGovern any good in 1972.