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Former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1972, died this past weekend at age 90. McGovern is probably best known for losing to President Richard Nixon in a lopsided contest — in which McGovern only won Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. But the senator from South Dakota left an enduring impact on Washington and the generation of politicians who followed him. We examine McGovern’s legacy.
- David Greenberg Associate Professor of History, Journalism & Media Studies, Rutgers University; "History Lesson" writer, Slate.com
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, same-sex marriage in Maryland. We explore the contentious politics of ballot question six and whether Maryland voters will become the first in the country to endorse same-sex marriage. But, first, the legacy of George McGovern.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe former senator and Democratic presidential candidate died Sunday at age 90. After a career in public service that stretched over more than half a century, McGovern's defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election still ranks among the most lopsided in American history, but his impact on the Democratic Party and its historical trajectory extended well beyond that one race.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about that is David Greenberg. He's a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He writes the "History Lesson" column at Slate.com. David Greenberg joins us from studios at Rutgers. Welcome.
PROF. DAVID GREENBERGThanks, Kojo. Good to be back with you.
NNAMDIThank you for joining us. George McGovern suffered one of the most lopsided losses in the history of presidential races. He lost the Electoral College, what, 520 to 17. He lost the popular vote by 13 or 18 million. But while that might be the stamp he left on the history of presidential races, his career also deeply and profoundly affected the Democratic Party. What sort of legacy can be traced to McGovern?
GREENBERGWell, I think there are two most important legacies that McGovern left, and I should say I grew up in Massachusetts. And shortly after McGovern's defeat, you know, within a manner of a year, people were sporting bumper stickers that said, don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts. It was the only state to support McGovern.
NNAMDIAnd the District of Columbia.
GREENBERGAnd the District of Columbia. That's true. That's true. And so, you know, there was, in retrospect after Watergate, I think, a lot of reconsideration and recognition that, you know, as poor a campaign as McGovern ran and as objectionable as many of his beliefs were, there was also a big mistake that was ultimately made in the election of 1972. But I think McGovern's legacy is beyond that for the direct involvement with Nixon -- and sort of as a footnote to the Nixon presidency -- are in two areas.
GREENBERGOne, a kind of isolationist approach that he brought to foreign policy coming out of the Vietnam period that colored the Democratic Party for better or for worse -- and I would say mostly for worse -- in the ensuing decades. And, secondly, a sort of more technical legacy which was his leadership of the committee that reformed the rules on nominating presidential candidates for the party, which really led to our system of primaries and caucuses, especially primaries, and lessening the power of the party leaders who had a for long time really been the decisive voice there.
NNAMDIYeah. Because before 1972, decisions about party leadership tended to be made in closed-off smoke-filled rooms, but in 1964 -- 1968, Democrats had to confront a very messy upheaval in the form of protests at their national convention. 1972 was different, and it ended up changing the way both parties nominated their president, correct?
GREENBERGThat is exactly right. So, for much of the 20th century, starting in the early 20th century, you do have primaries. There were reform that starts in the first decade of the 20th century. And yet, the party bosses, the governors, the mayors, those who really control their delegation continue into the '60s to be very strong in determining who is going to get to carry the standard of the party into the fall election. But in 1964, as many listeners will know, there was a big fight over seating a black delegation from Mississippi that was contesting the right...
NNAMDIThe Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, correct.
GREENBERGThe Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, exactly right. And they kind of settle on a compromise that left really nobody terribly happy, instead of -- this was governed, say, of the white supremacist delegation that, you know, was used to ruling the roost.
GREENBERGAnd then in 1968, again, I think listeners probably know you had terrible police riots and conflicts between anti-war protesters and Chicago police at the Democratic convention in 1968, as well as much turbulence and chaos in the convention hall. And this led the Democrats to say that they really need to change the way that the conventions were handled.
NNAMDIWe're talking with David Greenberg. He's a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He joins us by phone. He writes the "History Lesson" column at Slate.com. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us, 800-433-8850. If you'd like to weigh in on exactly what you feel George McGovern meant not only to the Democratic Party but to politics in general in the United States, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Many people on both sides of the aisle -- well, let me get back to the selection process again because one of the explicit goals you mentioned 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, one of the explicit goals in changing the delegate system was apparently to bring more minorities into leadership positions within the state parties. Is that correct?
GREENBERGThat's exactly right and because, in particular, in light of 1964 and the continued legacy of the Democratic Party which had the strong Southern component still being exclusive against blacks and then also feeling that young people in light of '68 needed to be included and given more of a voice and also women, too, as the feminist movement was dawning. But what became controversial was the exact language that would sort of guarantee certain percentages and encourage certain percentages of representation which critics began to see as something like a quota system.
GREENBERGAnd it seemed to some who were, you know, liberally, you know, supportive of affirmative action generally that this was in a way supplanting the decision of the voters that delegates were supposed to reflect the voters' will. So if you impose quotas on how many what percent should be of people under 30 or black or female, it was not necessarily carrying voters' wishes. So it introduced this dilemma and problem that, I think, the Democrats, you know, for a long time they have to struggle to resolve.
NNAMDIAnd many people on both sides of the aisle see 1972 and the McGovern campaign in a way as a cautionary tale of allowing party platform to be pulled too far from the center. Was McGovern the person who was leading the Democratic Party shift to the left, if you will, or was he a manifestation of shifts that were already underway?
GREENBERGWell, I would say it's the latter. McGovern, you know, was a candidate of the left wing of the Democratic Party, and he was certainly a leader of that wing. But the party was fracturing. And there were constituencies within it that were more conservative, not only white Southerners who I have mentioned already but also of various ethnic, urban and suburban voters, Catholics.
GREENBERGA whole range of constituencies were sort of reassessing their relationship to the Democratic Party in light of the turbulence of the '60s and the stance that various Democratic leaders were taking on a whole host of social issues, racial issues, Vietnam War.
GREENBERGAnd so it is true that McGovern kind of led a triumph of the left wing of the Democratic Party and in modern times sort of, you know, in the sort of perhaps since William Jennings Bryan, he's sort of the most left wing candidate that the party ever did nominate. But he was reflecting a strong upsurge of dissent in the Democratic Party and also, you know, broadly in the nation.
NNAMDIWell, a little more on domestic policy for a second, David Greenberg, because later in the hour we'll be looking at the gay marriage debate in Maryland, a measure that the Democratic Party has backed strongly. Was -- what does that say about the different constituencies? Is this a byproduct, you think, of the changes of 1972?
GREENBERGWell, in some ways, it certainly is. Again, you know, there are deeper roots in the '60s. Ultimately, I think with the civil rights movement, leaving in a series of empowerment movements by different groups, ethnic groups, women, the feminist movement or the Second Wave, it was inspired in part by the civil rights movement. And certainly, the gay rights movement drew a lot of inspiration from the civil rights movement, too.
GREENBERGSo coming out of the '60s, there are a host of different ethnic, racial, other constituent blocs that are demanding equal rights and equal justice. And the Democratic Party, for the most part, became the home for all of these groups, and it became quite tolerant of, you know, a pluralistic -- and it was often criticized as being captive to what was called special interests, although it should be noted that that term, which goes back to the progressive era, is really a term referring to big business as special interest.
GREENBERGThen it sort of got corrupted and applies to different minority groups. But certainly, this picture we have of the Democratic Party is home to different minority groups, you know, seeking equal rights, equal justice at the bar of public opinion, you know, is one that dates to the '60s and the McGovern era.
NNAMDIOn to foreign policy. Across his career, George McGovern was an outspoken advocate against war, giving voice to a popular sentiment that sometimes cut across party lines, but his anti-war stance apparently really cut two ways. You say it ended up damaging the Democratic brand in profound ways.
GREENBERGYeah. Well, you know, what's interesting despite the McGovern reform -- and I think the two pieces of his legacy are connected here -- McGovern was never terribly popular among black Democrats who tended to prefer Humphrey among Jewish Democrats who were put off by his very deep hostility to the state of Israel by -- really by anyone other than white upscale anti-war liberals. There was a certain anti-Vietnam type of reformist, clean, good government, white liberals who were his base, and that's who you needed to win in order to win the primaries in '72.
GREENBERGSo his success was tied to them, and that ethos sort of opposing not just the Vietnam War, which, of course, most Americans came to do -- and most people today agree with the right position. But taking a dim view of America's role abroad in general, of kind of feeling that America was more a force for ill or at least, you know, shouldn't be mucking around in other nations' business, it really came to characterize the Democratic Party.
GREENBERGAnd then with Jimmy Carter's weak foreign policy leadership, the Democratic Party came in the '70s and early '80s to really suffer from this, and it wasn't, I think, until the 1990s that a new voice of liberal interventionism that was not unilateral or nationalistic came to be viable again.
NNAMDIWhich brings us to tonight, in a way, every Democratic candidate for national office since 1972 has -- maybe because of what you just indicated -- had to navigate tricky waters when it comes to foreign policy. And tonight, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face off in the final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. Care to prognosticate? Did -- has Obama changed the impression of Democratic leaders as the noninterventionist, war-avoiding kind of stereotype that now exists?
GREENBERGWell, I think there's still something of a debate on, you know, not literally of the sense tonight. But the question is, is the Democratic Party susceptible to these old stereotypes that emerge from the George McGovern imprint? Yeah, I think under Bill Clinton, with the successful interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and, you know, with Obama's very effective -- for the most part, you know, there are some important qualifications -- but very effective fight against al-Qaida in the war in terrorism, that those have, to a large degree, neutralized those old charges.
GREENBERGRomney is still trying to make those charges, saying, Obama apologizes. He's weak. He's trying to summon up an older image of the Democratic Party. But it seems to me that, for the most part, Obama's seen as the stronger foreign policy candidate this year that Romney's critiques, that the Republican critiques resonate among their devoted base but, so far as I can tell, haven't found wider traction among the electorate this year.
NNAMDIAnd there's one thing about George McGovern that, I guess, we should not forget. Allow me to have Rosie in Washington, D.C. remind us of it. Rosie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROSIEThank you. I just wanted to say that we can't say enough about his tireless fight against hunger among the poor of the whole world. And he was one of the founders of the World Food Programme, which he worked, you know, for a long time as a goodwill ambassador and did a lot of good. And the world is still, you know, receiving the benefits of that goodwill.
NNAMDIIndeed, there was an op-ed piece by former Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Bob Dole about his work with George McGovern over the years and the effort. So, Rosie, thank you for bringing that up. David Greenberg, thank you for joining us.
GREENBERGSure. It was my pleasure.
NNAMDIDavid Greenberg is a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He writes the "History Lesson" column at slate.com. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, same-sex in Maryland. The referendum comes up on Election Day. We'll discuss the pros, cons and what's going on. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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