As Went Alf Landon, So Did McGovern-But How About Dean?

“I … had my heart broken for the first time.”-Nicholas Kristof on the McGovern landslide defeat in 1972

It’s the Night of the Big Defeat, Election Night 1972, at McGovern campaign headquarters in the Holiday Inn in Sioux Falls, S.D., and after drinking a little too much, I decide it’s necessary for me to put in a call to Alf Landon in Kansas. You might recall good old Alf, who up to then had been the Biggest Loser in Presidential history off his disastrous 1936 run against F.D.R.

I felt someone ought to give Alf (then 85) the good news: that he was no longer the Biggest Loser in history. George McGovern was, in the sense that Landon had won only two states, while McGovern had won only one (and the District of Columbia). At least that’s one way of looking at it. I’ve come to think that George McGovern wasn’t a loser at all, that he didn’t break my heart-as he seems to have broken Nicholas Kristof’s-by losing big. That whether you agree with him or not, he’s someone who deserves admiration for conducting a principled campaign against an unprincipled opponent. In addition, I think there is a fundamental misconception about McGovern’s loss: blaming it on his fidelity to principles in the first place.

I think that’s why certain of the Dean-McGovern comparisons flying around now from concerned Democrats and gleeful Republicans are flawed. They’re premised on the belief that Dean will replicate the McGovern defeat because of his rigid adherence to principles. I’m not sure of that, precisely because Dean seems far more a canny opportunist than McGovern, less attached to his principles and more attached to winning. After all, as one snarky blogger suggested in the wake of Saddam’s capture, wouldn’t strict adherence to principle by those who denounced the war as a terrible mistake require them to call for Saddam’s restoration to power, now that we know he’s alive? (After all, no weapons of mass destruction have been found yet, just mass graves, and maybe those 300,000 people in mass graves all committed suicide.) And yet Dean was quick to say that the capture was “a great day.”

Perhaps the Saddam capture will mean the ultimate letdown for Dean’s supporters. (“I can’t believe this,” Carrie B. posted on a Dean Web site. “I’m crying here. I feel that we now don’t have a chance in this election.”) But I have to admit, I’d been feeling a kind of envy for the experience the Deanites had been going through up till now, the sudden exhilaration of participating in what seemed like a successful insurgency in a Presidential primary campaign. I had a taste of that feeling covering the McGovern campaign from its insurgent beginnings when I was just starting out as a reporter, and it’s a thrill that has stayed with me. As has my admiration for George McGovern.

It’s an admiration that I’d come to feel as early as 1968 at the Chicago Hilton, the Democratic Party convention headquarters, in the midst of the riot and the beatings on the street. In a dank banquet room reeking of mildew and tear gas, McGovern gave a sparsely attended press conference, in which he calmly but forthrightly spoke out against the violent treatment of anti-war demonstrators in the streets. He was one of the few Democratic Senators to do so.

It was an admiration that grew four years later as I began covering his campaign as one of the low-ranking “Boys on the Bus” in ’72 (when the gifted observer Tim Crouse coined the term). An experience that came to an end with my Election Night phone call to Alf Landon.

My memory is of having just spent the previous couple of hours drinking with Hunter Thompson and some other reporters in the revolving restaurant on the roof of the Sioux Falls Holiday Inn, letting the magnitude of the defeat sink in, sharing doom-laden scenarios of the Nixon years to come. (At least I think it was a revolving restaurant-come to think of it, my own room seemed to be revolving too, and that couldn’t be right.)

Anyway, I don’t know how I managed to track Alf Landon down at such short notice, but I summoned up some dim memory of his hometown in Kansas from Arthur Schlesinger’s F.D.R. bio and it turned out he was listed (Alf, not Arthur Schlesinger). It wasn’t like the networks were beating down his door, so he didn’t seem to mind chatting.

Nevertheless, Alf didn’t seem to be as overjoyed as I expected at the news that he would no longer be a kind of punchline to political jokes about Big Losers. He was quite affable, despite some puzzlement about the motives of his caller. He was comfortable with the campaign he’d run (he was, in fact, a relatively progressive Republican, only recently being given credit for having saved his party from the crypto-fascist forces among the F.D.R.-haters). He said he ran on issues he believed in and didn’t regret the loss because he stayed true to his principles, didn’t think of himself as a punchline to a joke, and he also had kind words for his fellow big loser, George McGovern.

And, in fact, McGovern hasn’t become a punchline so much as a warning sign: Don’t run a principled campaign or you’ll end up winning only Massachusetts. But maybe it’s a misleading warning. Perhaps his loss was foreordained, but I’m not convinced the landslide was. As the campaign was going on, Nixon’s bagmen were meeting surreptitiously with the Watergate burglars to deliver wads of hush money from illegal campaign cash. The Watergate cover-up, few knew then, was hanging by a thread at the time of the election, and would only last four months more, when James McCord started spilling the beans to Judge Sirica and the truth about the whole sordid scheme began to emerge. If that truth had come out before the vote … who knows? Would Americans re-elect Richard Nixon as President if they knew the facts that would force him to resign less than two years later?

There was another factor in McGovern’s loss, one unrelated to his running a principled campaign: the George Wallace shooting. If Wallace had continued in the direction he seemed to be heading-a strong third-party run-before the bullet struck and paralyzed him, it might have sabotaged Nixon’s “Southern strategy” by splitting the race-and-busing bloc that Nixon counted on in both the North and the South. So it’s not necessarily true that running on issues made George McGovern such a big loser: It was bagmen and a bullet.

Anyway, I don’t regret my call to Alf Landon. The great Murray Kempton always said that the best stories are to be found in the losing locker rooms of history, that you learn more from losers than winners. I had spoken to McGovern earlier that day at some Election Day photo op in which, as I recall, he spoke wistfully of the hunting season coming up and the preference of South Dakota hunters for bagging “early mourning doves.” He said-I swear this is true-he liked the sound of their “cooing.”

And now I had bagged Alf Landon: two great losers in one day. Little did we know that the Biggest Loser of Them All, now celebrating victory, would be out on his ear in less than two years, the first President to resign in disgrace.

I took the whole McGovern ride, covering the campaign as it rose from nowhere, went Somewhere, and descended into nowhere again that night at the Sioux Falls Holiday Inn. From the time he was using rickety old Ozark Air Lines charter jets, to the point where he had a virtual fleet of campaign planes at his command.

I didn’t see it coming in my first trip with McGovern; I didn’t think he had much of a chance and made snarky comments in my dispatch about now-deceased Ozark Air Lines. But when it began to happen, it happened fast and it was breathtaking.

The press traveling with Howard Dean must have felt it-might still be feeling it. The boys on the McCain bus surely felt it for a brief moment. But suddenly, crowds were coming out in increasing numbers to greet McGovern at wintry Midwest airstrip stops. First-string national reporters were bigfooting lesser types like myself, who were demoted to the new plane added on, the one that came to be called the “Zoo Plane” (not without cause).

You recall the set-up: Richard Nixon running for re-election with big money and a badly divided Democratic Party, and only Woodward and Bernstein (and later a partly muzzled Cronkite) in the media caring much about Watergate. McGovern, to his credit, did bring up Watergate repeatedly once The Washington Post’s first big Woodstein stories ran, but it was looked upon as the desperation of a loser.

Meanwhile, there was the war-you know, the one in Vietnam, which Nixon claimed to be “Vietnamizing.” A war which even those, like Robert McNamara, who believed in confronting Soviet ambitions had realized years earlier was senselessly squandering lives and, in effect, undermining any larger purpose as well. (McNamara’s confession on that point is one of the many things that makes my friend Errol Morris’ documentary The Fog of War so important; see my column in the Sept. 29, 2003, issue.)

And there was an anti-war movement that had driven a President from office in 1968 (and, paradoxically, probably helped elect Nixon by denying Humphrey their vote, sort of like the Naderites of 2000 who put the nail in Al Gore’s coffin). The wing of the anti-war movement that still had a taste for electoral politics in 1972 (many no longer did) had become very smart and very adept organizers by then; they began capturing caucuses in the winter of ’71 and ended up capturing the party in ’72. That’s one of the nuts-and-bolts journalistic insights beneath the Electric Kool-Aid of Hunter Thompson’s prose in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, his collected real-time dispatches: Early on, he picked up on the way a savvy grassroots strategy was giving the McGovern campaign a stealth edge. Like Dean’s, the McGovern insurgency leapt into the lead by innovative organizing, by out-organizing their opponents, and they made the McGovern campaign the anti-war movement’s campaign.

So it was a movement campaign, like the Goldwater insurgency was a movement campaign. A campaign on issues, an anti-war campaign led by a World War II bomber pilot and prairie populist who came out of nowhere. What impressed me about McGovern was a kind of preternatural calm, which I somehow connected with his having flown through Axis anti-aircraft fire in the war. He didn’t have charisma, but his sense of conviction did. And he was so unlike the other candidates.

I’d watched front-runner Ed Muskie sweatily pander to corrupt party bosses and wiseguy union big shots in Cherry Hill, N.J. I’d traveled with the insanely desperate Humphrey campaign, which featured the scariest campaign plane I’d ever traveled in, a loose-bolted prop job that was forever stalling and losing altitude, honking klaxon warnings which went off like shrieking waterfowl as we dipped perilously close to the frightened inhabitants below, though it turned out that almost everyone else on the plane was unnaturally calm, having been sedated by the traveling pharmacy of Humphrey’s accommodating personal doctor. (I think I used the honking klaxons as a metaphor for Humphrey’s unfortunate rhetorical style, but Hunter Thompson probably put it best when he described Humphrey’s campaign personality as akin to “a hen on amyls.”)

And then the party had to stop: I was with the Humphrey campaign a few dozen miles away in Maryland when George Wallace was shot, and the whole narrative of the campaign darkened. It was also a reminder of the way that, since 1963, the irrational and the violent have repeatedly intervened in “the process” to change American political history. I did the vigil at Wallace’s hospital, and he wasn’t the only victim that day. Rent The Parallax View someday, and you’ll get a feeling for the shadow of paranoia that repeated assassinations and assassination attempts cast over the national psyche for a long time afterward.

And then there was the bizarre scene at the Democratic National Convention in Miami, starting with the gloriously tacky mirrored glitz of the Fontainebleau Hotel, which served as the convention headquarters.

The Democratic convention itself was a deceptive mirror-image of grim Chicago: the people in the streets then, now in the aisles of the convention hall seizing the party. I remember watching with awe as McGovern floor general Willie Brown (then a San Francisco assemblyman, later mayor) exercised his political wizardry. I was there in the California delegation when the McGovern command made their one pragmatic, non-principled decision. It was some obscure rules issue supported by women’s groups that threatened McGovern’s momentum. I could hear the anguished discussion: Pulling the rug out from under it might enable McGovern to win a first-ballot victory with dispatch, though at the cost of betraying his allies. And so they did it. When can you say of a campaign that you actually remember its only unprincipled move? Perhaps that was what doomed McGovern: For someone who set the bar so high, perhaps his one instance of being cynical came back to haunt him karmically.

And then the Republican convention, the coronation of Richard Nixon, held in the same town-but Miami was a different city this time, a Secret Service–saturated, police- and National Guard–infested, barbed-wire and tear-gas city.

Re-reading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, I was reminded of a peculiarly absurdist moment in that spectacle: when I decided to infiltrate the Youth for Nixon march on the convention floor. Hunter Thompson, it turned out, had the same idea. What actually happened was that I noticed him, he noticed me, we nodded and kept our disguises secure, and eventually both of us marched onto the convention floor with the Nixon Youth to the cheers of the delegates, all on national TV.

Here’s the “gonzo” version of the Youth for Nixon march, as Thompson remembered it: “For the first ten minutes I was getting very ominous Hell’s Angels flashbacks-all alone in a big crowd of hostile, cranked-up geeks in a mood to stomp somebody.”

Then, he says, “I … saw Ron Rosenbaum from The Village Voice, coming at me in a knot of Nixon Youth wranglers. ‘No press allowed!’ they were screaming …. They had nailed Rosenbaum at the door-but instead of turning back and giving up, he plunged into the crowded room and made a beeline for the back wall, where he’d already spotted me sitting in peaceful anonymity. By the time he reached me he was gasping for breath and about six fraternity/jock types were clawing at his arms.”

I like the heroic, battling image of myself, but it didn’t happen; nor did the events that Thompson says ensued, in which my cry for help threatens to blow his cover, and Thompson turns on me and tells the Nixon Youth, “Get that bastard out of here!”-at which point, “Rosenbaum stared at me. There was shock and repugnance in his eyes as if he had just recognized me as a lineal descendant of Judas Iscariot.”

It’s much more entertaining than what happened, but I didn’t get as exercised about these embellishments as some did about Thompson’s approach to reporting. I thought he was just an amazingly talented writer who wrote an American classic in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (a demonic inversion of Gatsby) and ought to be allowed to do what he did best, a sui generis prose that didn’t fit easily into the categories of fiction or nonfiction, but was somehow more true to the reality of that year than the still-dutifully-mimetic prose of the regular White House reporters. Thompson opened up Presidential campaign reporting to the vision of absurdity, the way Norman Mailer had opened it up to a vision of metaphysics. I think in some ways Thompson was more influential, because while Mailer worked aloof, Thompson did much in many ways to “loosen up” (let’s say) the rest of the “Boys on the Bus.” He gave voice to some of the skepticism the press corps felt about the candidates, and it eventually began to surface in their prose in later campaigns-mostly for the better, I think.

But back to McGovern’s campaign. First there was the Vice Presidentialdebacle-remember, McGovern’s V.P. choice, Thomas Eagleton, had chosen not to reveal electro-shock treatments for depression that when they were finally disclosed, led him to resign his candidacy and made the McGovern campaign itself a candidate for what the budding cutthroat politico Lee Atwater would call the “jumper cables.”

And then there was the crash, the fall campaign. Give George McGovern credit: He stuck to his anti-war message, he tried to make people care about Watergate, he stuck to his principles. The final crushing blow: Henry Kissinger’s deceptive proclamation that, as a result of his secret diplomacy, “peace is at hand.” Bye-bye, peace issue. It wasn’t until after the election that it turned out peace was not really at hand at all. In fact, many more Americans and Vietnamese would die before the end. One can disagree with him on principle (and some of my thinking has changed). But was McGovern wrong to run a principled campaign on this issue? If you think so, you don’t believe in the American democratic process.

Anyway, I was there for McGovern’s final desperate cross-country dash, whose final leg-from Long Beach to a post-midnight landing in Sioux Falls-was a memorable debauch fueled by (among other things) wild delusory hope and the intimations of the landslide about to hit.

And then, less than two years later, I was there in Washington for the Nixon impeachment hearings, when the full truth about what was going on behind the scenes in that campaign from beginning (the phony letter that led to the demise of Ed Muskie’s campaign) to end (the bagmen and the blackmail) finally emerged.

And I was there in the East Room of the White House as a weeping Richard Nixon left by the back door, disgraced.

That was the real end of the McGovern campaign. In some ways, you could say that ultimately he won. His opponent certainly lost. But even if McGovern was the Big Loser who eclipsed Alf Landon, he won my respect because he didn’t lose his soul. He demonstrated that it was possible to run a campaign which focused the electorate’s attention on the real issue of the day-Vietnam. I may disagree with Dean’s supporters, but they have the right to have a candidate who expresses their views faithfully. Howard Dean won’t break his supporters’ hearts by losing the election; he’ll break their hearts if he abandons his principles. Comparing Howard Dean to George McGovern shouldn’t be an insult; it’s something to live up to.