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Recounting McGovern's Defeat While the Body Is Still Warm

By David R. Ignatius

IN OCTOBER, THE MONTH when campaigns are supposed to move into high gear, George McGovern's national political coordinator, Frank Mankiewicz, pulled aside a political adviser with Harvard connections. Was a confident Mankiewicz offering a cabinet position in the McGovern Administration? Not exactly.

"I wonder," Mankiewicz asked, "whether it might be possible to arrange a fellowship for me at the Institute of Politics for next term?" Down at McGovern headquarters, this has been a good season for gallow's humor.

The mark of an optimist in the waning days of the McGovern campaign was a hope that the election would be closely contested in the industrial states of the North. For even if these states could not carry McGovern to victory, they could save him from total, pulverizing defeat.

Although returns were incomplete at press time, it was clear that Frank Mankiewicz will indeed be looking for a new job this morning. For the Nixon landslide victory, which had been predicted since the Democratic Convention, slowly took shape last night as the election returns made their way toward the computers. Even the meager optimism of McGovern's supporters in the last days of the campaign proved to have been ill-founded.

Nixon didn't make any mistakes. For example, not only did he carry New York State, which he had lost in 1968, but he also carried New York City, where two weeks ago Nixon campaign aides had said they would be happy to hold McGovern to a 400,000-vote plurality.

There will be many autopsies of the McGovern campaign. But while the body is still warm, we can ask a few pertinent questions. Why did McGovern fall to defeat as on popular incumbent who was vulnerable on many issues? Why did he fail to carry such traditional Democratic Party strongholds as Illinois Michigan and Texas?

Was McGovern illegitimate as a national Democratic Party candidate because of his association with a left of center minority within the Party as Democrats for Nixon organizers claimed? Can McGovern poor showing be traced to his left-liberal politics which were not in step with the conservative mood of the electorate? Or can they be traced to specific mistakes which he and his associates made in the course of the Campaign?

In a series of recent interviews three advisers to the McGovern campaign--Doris H. Learn, associate professor of Government; Marc J. Roberts '64, associate professor of Economics; and Martin H. Peretz, assistant professor of Social Studies--described some of their experiences during the summer and fall. Though they were all hesitant to talk on the record about specific mistakes made by McGovern, a picture of a sloppy and at times diffident campaign organization emerges from their accounts. A fourth adviser who wished to remain anonymous summed up his view of the campaign by saying: "The voters decided that McGovern couldn't be trusted to handle a crisis with confidence and skill. And when you come down to it the voters usually right."

Criticisms of the conduct of the campaign hinged on several critical questions outlined below.

Did McGovern Campaign on the Issues

THE MYSTIQUE OF George McGovern, developed during his string of primary victories, was that he was an honest man who was willing to confront the issues head on. He was seen as being above politics," offering an alternative to frustrated voters who believe that in general, all politicians are crooks.

All three advisers believe that after McGovern's $1000 income redistribution proposal had been attacked during the California primary, he and his advisers were wary of making specific issue oriented proposals.

"After the $1000 flare-up in California, McGovern faced a choice." said Marc Roberts. "He had gotten burned on badly-researched but basically sound income redistribution proposal, and he had to decide either that his next serious statement on economic issues was going to be impeccably researched, or that he wasn't going to make anymore major policy statements. Far too much, McGovern chose the latter course."

Long before he became involved in the McGovern campaign, Roberts had been meeting with several of his junior faculty colleagues, including Doris Kearns, in a discussion group trying to put together a populist political strategy. The members of the seminar had decided that a populist campaign for the presidency would begin with a series of detailed position papers and policy statements early in the campaign. They believed that as the populist candidate spoke publicly on the practical implementation of his new proposals, he would develop a confidence which would be apparent to voters. He would know, for example, just what a $100 income supplement would cost.

Roberts, Kearns and other members of the seminar went to Washington in December 1970 at the expense of Senator Edmund S. Muskie (d-Maine). then front-runner for the Democratic nomination. They tried to sell Muskie on their issue-oriented approach. Roberts remembers that some of the younger Muskie staffers were sympathetic, but that older politicians in the room-confident that front-runners didn't need issues--weren't buying. So despite an invitation from Muskie's administrative assistant, Don Nicholls, to produce a serious draft of their campaign strategy, the Harvard group returned to Cambridge still looking for a candidate.

WHEN McGOVERN BEGAN his early primary campaign with the sort of position papers Roberts and the others had advised, Roberts was drawn towards his candidacy. He spent a week in California during the spring drawing up a policy statement on conversion of the aerospace industry, and later was a staff director of McGovern's task force on environmental issues.

Roberts said that he was frustrated by McGovern's inability to present the arguments which he and others developed in the position papers. One source explained that Roberts's frustration could be traced to a McGovern decision following the release of the environmental white paper. McGovern decided that the campaign would issue no more detailed policy statements because they put the candidate himself in the background.

"I'm not sure how well McGovern understands economics," Roberts said simply. "His greatest quality is his capacity to sustain moral outrage at a time when the repetitiveness of moral disaster numbs the average person. But, the most successful political figures in modern times have known how to integrate this moral outrage with an apparent confidence and sophistication on nuts-and-bolts issues, like the economy.

McGovern never developed such confidence, and as a result he made the very error which the faculty study group on populist strategy had decided would be most disastrous for a left-leaning Democrat--he built a constituency of moral individuals who shared his outrage about the war, but had nothing new or persuasive to say about domestic issues.

Marty Peretz, another position paper writer, wonders if the issues were cut away from the McGovern campaign by deliberate decision or inadvertant organizational sloppiness. Peretz joined Michael L. Waizer professor of Government, in authoring McGovern's position paper on the Middle East. "That paper was ready five weeks ago," Peretz said this week. "But it wasn't released until this last Saturday which meant that it never even got published in the Jewish weekly newspapers. That's lost pure in competence.

Whatever the reasons George McGovern defaulted on his "new politics" promise in make serious discussion of the issues the heart of his 1972 campaign.

One man, who has worked in every Democratic campaign since 1960, said with some chagrin that by yesterday McGovern and his staff had made fewer substantive progressive proposals that John F. Kennedy '40, Lyndon B. Johnson or Hubert H. Humphrey did in their "old politics" campaigns.

What did the Eagleton Affair Cost McGovern?

IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE Democratic Convention, George McGovern believed that he would be elected President because he was an honest and moral man who had been right on Vietnam since the beginning and would prove himself right on most other issues as the campaign wore on.

Even if McGovern sometimes seemed a little stupid as in the California $1000 give-away blunder, he was a decent and likable fellow. But this winning image disappeared within two weeks, just as most voters were beginning to find out about the unknown from South Dakota who had captured the Democratic nomination.

The Eagleton medical disclosure was a bad business to start with, but McGovern made the worst of it. The presidential candidate had to make a quick decision. He could have told the public that because he was not a doctor, he would postpone a judgment on Eagleton for 72 hours, which would give him time to consult the proper medical authorities. Or he could have condemned Eagleton, with some justification, for failing to mention his psychiatric problems when the vice presidential nomination had been proposed, and then dumped him from the ticket. This would have been cruel to Eagleton, but it might have preserved McGovern's reputation as a straight shooter.

At the very least, McGovern could privately have decided to ignore the advice of the two men who had been given the job of checking into Eagleton's medical history, which had been the subject of countless convention-time rumors. But McGovern listened to the only people who had a vested interest in minimizing the importance of the Eagleton crisis--Eagleton himself and the convention name checkers, Frank Mankiewicz and Gordon Well, who had earlier been responsible for briefing McGovern on the $1000 grant scheme. And they told him that McGovern listened to the architects of disaster, and pledged his 1000 per cent support to Eagleton,

Roberts described his powerlessness and a campaign neophyte, silently watching the professional politicians put McGovern's hard-won reputation through a shredder. He believes that the nature of decision making during the Eagleton crisis can only be explained by the fact that a Campaign organization is not so much a bureaucracy as a "very unstable feudal court, with people clearly jockeying for positions and influence in the next White House."

The Eagleton matter did not blow over, and it soon became clear that McGovern had decided not a decide until after he had gauged public reaction. Deciding no to decide is a time-honored political strategy, but it requires timing, grace and absolute self-confidence, all of which McGovern lacked.

According to Kearns, a former side to President Lyndon Johnson who wrote some of Sergeant Shriver's 1972 campaign speeches, and participated in many of the McGovern leadership's strategy sessions, the momentum which McGovern had developed through the primaries and the Convention was dissipated by his vacillation on the Eagleton question.

"When I joined Shriver in August," Kearns said, "there was a feeling on the plane that it was going to be a long fight to get the momentum back up. The momentum problem was complex, because in addition to breaking the campaign's money and momentum the Eagleton affair stopped the staff cold for two weeks."

Most important, McGovern looked like a loser for the first time, and this added to the troubles he was having in uniting the Democratic Party behind his candidacy, Kearns explained, "McGovern's best chance of winning back the bosses was to keep piling up the momentum.

Kearns feels that the Democrats would have had difficult time in any case, simply because Wallace had dropped out of the race. But once the foot-shuffling of late July had taken place, McGovern had lost the heart place, McGovern had lost the heart of his appeal. According to Kearns, "The only real chance the Democrats had of winning was to play on a deep-rooted anti-political sentiment. The sixties had produced a revulsion against politics, and if McGovern had stood against traditional politics, he might have found a close affiliation with people. But 'above politics' would have required courage to think outside the rules of the game."

What Was McGovern's Post-Eagleton Strategy?

THE WORST THING ABOUT the Eagleton affair was that it had been unforseen, and it introduced the unwelcome elements of chance and luck into the campaign.

A campaign is a created reality. Campaign advisers decide precisely what themes they want to convey, and then they feed them to the voters in precisely-measured spoonfuls. During the Eagleton flap, observed Doris Kearns, "the newspapers had been writing their own headlines." In a well-run campaign, the candidate writes the headlines.

But Eagleton had happened to George McGovern, and he had to find an image all over again. An in trying to find replacement for Eagleton. McGovern attempted to restore the aura of a truth crusade to his campaign. He made a little publicized offer of the vice presidency to Ralph Nader, the only uncorruptible man in America, and the only man who could have put the McGovern campaign back where it started--"above politics." But like most of McGovern's other top choices. Nader refused the offer.

In deciding finally on War on Poverty chief R. Sergeant Shriver as his running mate, McGovern had implicitly made a choice to link his campaign with the Democratic Party of the 1960s. Another important Shriver selling point was that he came in a package deal with his old friend. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. But although McGovern had decided to sound like a Democrat and organize a classic Democratic Party constituency, he still had to decide what sorts of themes he would emphaisize.

"The McGovern people had to use the evening news, because they didn't have any money," Kearns said. "When you go on TV, the only important decision is: What are your visuals going to be?" Kearns said that while she was travelling with Shriver in August, it was obvious that no final tact had been decided on the visuals strategy of the campaign. "You could tell no real decision had been made by the scheduling," Kearns said. "No political goal was determining where we were going."

KEARNS REMEMBERS THAT in late August and early September two competing visual strategies were being argued in high-level meetings chaired by McGovern adviser Ted Van Dyck. One strategy--favored by Kearns, Pat Caddell '72 and many of the younger campaign advisers--would develop class-conscious themes in the campaign. The class appeals would stress that the Democrats were the party of the ordinary man, the Republicans the party of the Nixon-Connolly rich. Class-conscious visuals would show McGovern visiting a neighborhood that had been block-busted, talking about how both blacks and whites get screwed by the big men on top. Or they would put him first in St. Louis talking about bread and butter issues with white workers then in East St. Louis talking the same line with blacks.

A second strategy, favored by Larry O'Brien and other party regulars, argued that Americans have never thought of themselves in class terms, and weren't about to start doing so in 1972, Americans think of themselves as middle-class, it was argued, and when they think of themselves as members of special groups the groups are racial, ethnic or religious. A class-conscious line, it was said, would only make people afraid. And fear worked to the benefit of Richard Nixon.

O'Brien and others counselled separate appeals to the various constituencies in the Democratic Party coalition. Democratic Coalition visuals would show McGovern visiting old people at a hospital in San Diego: speaking before a Jewish Veterans group in Houston; visiting a poverty project in a black neighborhood in Oakland.

The key point of agreement between the competing strategists was a belief that the campaign had to sound clear and simple themes. "In late August and early September," Kearns said, "people went back to Kennedy's speeches in 1960 and realized that he had been saying just one thing-Get America Moving Again. All the speeches and position papers had been expression of that single idea."

But rather than deciding on either strategy, the campaign advisers in effect chose to weld them together. There was a nominal decision to employ the class themes, and to speak out on economic issues; but the decision to stress Democratic unity and party loyalty had also been made. The dual commitments produced a confusing campaign, which to the end lacked a precise theme.

AS SUMMER GAVE WAY to fall the voters still did not know who George McGovern was. Indeed, the strategies had been argued separately from McGovern--as ideal types which could work for any Democratic party liberal in 1972. But not any Democrat was running. George McGovern was and the Nixon strategists had managed to make the personality the hottest issue in the campaign. The welded strategies did not develop McGovern's strengths. In this sense, the Democrats ran a disembodied campaign and a campaign which could not converge in the person of George McGovern made the work of the Committee to Re-Elect the President a good deal easier.

As the election approached a few brave Democrats came to feel that the problems with the campaign was McGovern himself. "About six weeks ago," recalled Martin Peretz. "I suggested to Frank Mankiewicz that we ought to face up to the fact that McGovern was unpopular. I thought we should set up a Committee called Americans Reluctantly for George McGovern. Lyndon Johnson and Eugene McCarthy would have made ideal Co-Chairmen.

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