By TOM LAWRENCE
The Daily Republic
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 most accounts, George McGovern was a soft-spoken, decent, genuinely nice man. But he was also a veteran who was not unfamiliar with colorful language.
A heckler who badgered McGovern in the closing days of the 1972 presidential campaign found that out, and then the whole country did.
McGovern was in Battle Creek, Mich., when a man verbally attacked him. The man poured vicious comments on McGovern as the South Dakota senator worked a rope line.
McGovern went to the man, pulled him aside and whispered, “Listen, you son of a b****, why don’t you kiss my a**?”
The heckler was stunned for a moment but then told reporters what the Democratic presidential candidate had said. This was a time when presidential candidates and other high-profile political figures pretended they didn’t know what a swear word was, although the “expletive-deleted” White House tapes of President Richard Nixon forever destroyed that myth in 1973 and 1974.
But as the 1972 campaign came to a close, McGovern’s staffers were concerned. How would this play? What should they say?
McGovern decided not to deny having said it. He said he went back to his hotel room and had one of the best nights of sleep he had in the entire race.
Within a few days, his supporters were wearing “KMA” T-shirts to commemorate the comment. And McGovern’s communications director, the witty Frank Mankiewicz, offered a clever response when asked by reporters why the comment was made.
“McGovern’s a Democrat,” Mankiewicz said. “What did you expect him to say, ‘Kiss my elephant?’ ”
Years later, Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland, an old-line conservative Democrat, asked McGovern if he had really said that. McGovern admitted it in a regretful way.
Eastland beamed. “That was the best line in the campaign!” he said