By TOM LAWRENCE
The Daily Republic
George McGovern’s rise to the top of the Democratic Party in 1972 stunned a lot of people.
Born in tiny Avon and raised in Mitchell, he was a liberal from the sparsely populated state of South Dakota. Conventional wisdom said he was a long shot to win the presidential nomination.
In hindsight, his ascendance should not have surprised anyone.
He directed the creation of new party rules ahead of the 1972 election and took clear advantage of them. Those new rules arguably shaped the way both political parties have chosen their presidential nominees ever since, and some commentators give him credit for ushering in the modern primary system.
“I think it’s true,” McGovern said recently, speaking from his Florida home by phone with The Daily Republic. “I was chairman of that committee to open up the delegate selection process so that women, for the first time, were really strong in the selection of the candidate. Black people, young people, all of them came into the fold. And they formed the new Democratic majority.”
That new majority helped McGovern rise from the bottom of the polls to win the party’s presidential nod. Next week is the 40th anniversary of the July 10-13, 1972, Democratic National Convention in Miami, where McGovern officially won his party’s nomination to run for president.
The new Democratic vanguard did not carry him into the White House, but some historians and political scientists feel it eventually helped a black man, Barack Obama, win the presidency in 2008.
Steve Jarding, a Mitchell native who delivered The Daily Republic to McGovern’s home when he was a kid, has made politics a career.
Like McGovern, he ran the South Dakota Democratic Party for a time. Jarding has also managed or advised campaigns for Tom Daschle, Tim Johnson, Bob Kerrey, Mark Warner and Jim Webb.
He said McGovern’s impact on the national Democratic Party is readily apparent.
“There is no question George McGovern was the architect of the modern, more open national nominating process still in place today in American presidential politics,” Jarding said.
‘My sense of justice’
Jarding cited McGovern’s work with Rep. Don Fraser as chairmen of the McGovern-Fraser Commission following the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Jarding said the commission fundamentally altered to this day the way in which Americans nominate their national leaders.
“McGovern’s reforms opened the nominating process, taking it from the backrooms of a select few political players to the living rooms of millions of American households,” Jarding said. “His reforms were much more inclusive of electoral factions. They were much more democratic.”
McGovern said he insisted the 1972 reform rules he backed were employed during the 1972 Democratic election process.
Women, blacks and minorities needed to be in the state convention delegations and had to “reasonably represent” the population of the state, McGovern said.
“That was my sense of justice,” he said. “You know, at the ’68 convention, women were painfully unrepresented by delegations to the national convention. So were black people, so were young people, and I thought that was wrong.”
The 1968 delegations had been more than 80 percent male and were overwhelmingly white.
“There had to be some reasonable relationship to the population as a whole,” McGovern said. “That was really what the McGovern reforms were really all about.”
In 1968, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey had not entered any primaries, instead relying on the help of President Lyndon Johnson and other party leaders. The party was torn at its convention in Chicago that year.
McGovern, standing in for the slain Robert F. Kennedy, who had won several primaries, and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who also ran in primaries and competed in caucuses, watched as party bosses handed the ’68 nomination to Humphrey.
Louder voice for the people
Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon just four years after Johnson had swept to a landslide win.
Stung by the loss, the Democratic Party created the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. It was soon known by the chairman’s name: The McGovern Commission.
McGovern said party insiders picked him to chair the commission because he was a political veteran who was in his 12th year in Congress.
“I never saw myself as an outsider. I organized the Democratic Party in South Dakota,” he told DemocracyNow.org in 2008. “I worked my tail off to do that. I was an organizational man.”
The commission studied the selection process and discovered that many delegates were picked in private. The state parties had incredible power, and those already in office, the connected and the influential, were in charge of the party.
The people didn’t have a very loud voice.
McGovern vowed to alter that, to hand more power to the people outside the halls of government. State party conventions no longer would have the majority of the power.
One side effect was that almost all states started holding primaries to choose delegates. Those primaries would dominate the presidential selection process in 1972, and McGovern was determined to compete in them. He announced for president in Sioux Falls in 1971 and resigned as chairman of the commission. Rep. Don Fraser, D-Minn., was named to replace him as chairman.
Using the rules
Veteran journalist Jules Witcover covered the 1972 campaign for The Los Angeles Times.
Witcover will turn 85 on July 16, three days before McGovern turns 90, but Witcover still writes a column for The Baltimore Sun on American politics. He is also the author of several books on the subject.
Witcover said McGovern was seen as the carrier of the liberal standard in the ’72 campaign.
“It was kind of an aftermath of the ’68 campaign,” he said. “McGovern came on as an heir apparent of the Kennedy campaign. Robert Kennedy became almost a cult figure, quite different than his brother.
“McGovern inherited that in a way. And he carried on his back the whole war issue.”
Witcover said the change in how the Democrats selected their nominee explains how McGovern defeated his rivals in primaries and caucuses.
“One of the reasons he was able to win the nomination was because he understood the change in the rules,” Witcover said.
Witcover said McGovern’s main rivals for the nomination — Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace and Henry “Scoop” Jackson — didn’t grasp how things had changed.
Muskie, a senator from Maine, the 1968 Democratic vice presidential candidate and a future secretary of state, started 1972 as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
But he failed to catch on and was swiftly overtaken by McGovern’s campaign machine. At the Democratic National Convention, Muskie formally withdrew from the race and offered some comments that pointed to the future of the party.
“Let us recognize that George McGovern’s candidacy gives a hope for the long-term health and vigor of the Democratic Party and its processes far more significant than temporary difficulties and irritations from sometimes brash new blood,” Muskie said.
A few steps too far?
Jarding said the McGovern-Fraser Commission may have gone a few steps too far, something that McGovern himself admits.
“The relatively small participating electorate in nominating processes following the McGovern-Fraser changes tends to be more ideologically polarized than the larger pool of voters in a general election,” Jarding said, “potentially saddling political parties with nominees who have tended to be more ideological than pre-McGovern-Fraser nominees.
“This in turn has potentially weakened political parties and opened the doors to more independent forces, such as big money forces to, influence the nominating process. These are not illegitimate concerns, but I trust George McGovern would be the first in line to say the system needs to once again be tweaked today.”
Jarding also stressed the redeeming qualities of the reforms.
“McGovern’s reforms did usher into our national political system new levels of participation by diverse groups never before seen in American politics,” Jarding said. “One could certainly argue that without such reforms, a Ronald Reagan nomination in 1980 might have been threatened or that a Barack Obama nomination in 2008 would not have been possible.”
In 2008, McGovern reflected on the commission that carried his name in an interview with DemocracyNow.org.
“The ’72 convention, which was the first one to come under the new McGovern reforms, was pretty evenly balanced between men and women,” he said. “We also said that there should be some consideration given to age groups.”
The McGovern reforms have shaped the process still in use today, but they have been tweaked. The Democrats allow “superdelegates” to be seated at the convention.
They are people who hold national office, such as senators and representatives, as well as top party officials. McGovern said adding them to the convention was a reaction to the reforms he led, and was in many ways a good thing. Party loyalists and insiders need to have a voice in the process, he said.
McGovern noted that in 1972, Rep. Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, an influential member of Congress and future speaker of the House, lost a race to a 19-year-old McGovern supporter and was not a delegate.
Other leading Democrats were not delegates, either. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, a power in the party for decades, wasn’t welcome at the convention.
The “McGovernites,” as they were dubbed, who controlled the convention unseated an Illinois delegation led by Daley, saying the Daley faction had not adhered to the new rules.
Instead, a more liberal and diverse group, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was seated. The end result was that influential Illinois Democrats didn’t work very hard for McGovern in the general election.
Highlight of a life
At the time, McGovern and his supporters felt they were creating a new Democratic Party, one that welcomed more women, minorities and young people. 1972 was the first year people 18 and older could vote in presidential elections. The age limit had been 21.
The people who carried the longshot South Dakota senator to victory in primaries and caucuses would also propel him to the White House in the fall, they thought. At least, that was the theory during some long nights in Miami during the Democratic Convention in July 1972.
It didn’t work, at least in the short-term. McGovern lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, and McGovern even lost his home state of South Dakota. McGovern later famously quipped that he “opened the doors of the Democratic Party and 20 million people walked out.”
McGovern now spends a lot of time in Florida. In addition to his Mitchell home, he has a home in Fort Lauderdale Beach, a short drive from Miami, where the convention was held 40 years ago next week.
McGovern admits he has driven past the Miami Beach Convention Center, where he was nominated, “once or twice” over the years. The memories are still vivid.
“I think about it frequently,” McGovern said. “It was a highlight of my life to be nominated to be president of the United States.”