George McGovern’s Star-Crossed Run for President

Citing his fervent objection to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the role that then-President Richard Nixon was playing in continuing that war, George McGovern, the ultra liberal U.S. senator from South Dakota, announced his candidacy for president this week (Jan. 18) in 1971.  To say the least he was a long shot, but to everyone’s astonishment, he won the Democratic Party nomination in July of 1972, meaning he would face Nixon in the fall presidential election.

That said, right from the start almost nothing went right for McGovern’s campaign, in part because in 1972 he was seen as far more liberal than mainstream America and far more eager to abandon Vietnam.  In addition, his own Democratic Party was heavily populated by conservative southerners who abhorred his liberal domestic policies, including a strong Civil Rights agenda.

As a result, an “Anybody But McGovern” movement quickly sprang up among southern Democrats, which signaled to the electorate not just their unhappiness with their party’s standard bearer, but also the deep divisions within the Democratic Party itself.  Also, it didn’t help matters that McGovern’s choice for vice president, Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton, was later revealed to have received electroshock therapy for clinical depression, forcing McGovern to finally abandon Eagleton after vowing publicly to stick by him.  Five prominent Democrats subsequently turned down McGovern’s offer of the vice presidency before he finally got the equally liberal Sargeant Shriver, then ambassador to France, to accept.  Shriver’s chief claim to fame was that he was John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law.

Even Democratic Party leaders such as former President Lyndon Johnson and Chicago Mayor Richard Daly hesitated to endorse him, and the Democratic governor of Texas, John Connally, openly supported Nixon.  Also, raising money was a constant struggle; Nixon would outspend McGovern two-to-one during the campaign.

And then there were the series of “dirty tricks” that the Nixon campaign played against McGovern, including feeding lies and innuendo to the press, combing government and personal records for dirt on McGovern and his advisors, and — finally — instigating the Watergate scandal, in which members of Nixon’s re-election campaign conspired to illegally wiretap the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C.

Which was completely unnecessary.  As everyone expected — including McGovern — Nixon crushed McGovern on Election Day, winning 520 Electoral College votes to McGovern’s 17, and had Watergate never occurred, the final tally would have been virtually the same.

Which was ironic because, in Watergate’s wake, Nixon was forced to resign rather than face impeachment for his role in directing a cover-up of the Watergate conspiracy.  So while the Watergate scandal played no role in preventing McGovern from gaining the presidency, it prevented Nixon from keeping it.