Buttons provided by Carol Kramer. The plaque referencing Nixon’s win is from the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Walk of Honor in Highland Park
In keeping with the Presidents Visits/Campaign series, (The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Joseph Biden, on September 22nd, 1972, South Dakota Senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern campaigned in Rochester. In 1968, candidate Richard Nixon won a razor thin victory over Democrat Vice President Humphrey. In November 1972, President Nixon defeated McGovern by the largest popular vote margin in history, 60.7% to 37.5%. Nixon carried every state but Massachusetts. Nixon’s margin in Monroe County was similar to the national average, 61.95% to 37.83%. Nixon did not campaign in Rochester in 1972 but did visit in June 1971.
See In ’68 when Vice President Humphrey and former Vice President Nixon campaigned in Rochester and 45 years ago when President Nixon visited Rochester. And 3 days later when East High School erupted in racial violence
History mostly remembers McGovern for his long standing anti-Vietnam war position, culminating in his call as the 1972 Democratic nominee for a cessation of hostilities within 45 days. Dating back to 1963, McGovern opposed the war whether prosecuted by Democratic or Republican administrations. The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Walk of Honor in Highland Park cites McGovern’s outspokenness with references in 1967, 1968 and 1970.
At the same time, McGovern represented changes in the Democratic Party. During the primaries, McGovern gained from rule changes — ones he advocated as chair of the McGovern Commission — shifting party influence from establishment insiders to new coalitions of blacks, women and the youth vote. 1972 was the first national election following the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18.
Buttressed by “McGovern’s Army” — high school and college students who canvassed nationwide — McGovern captured the nomination at the July convention in Miami Beach.¹ McGovern turned back the more establishment candidates Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie who were presidential and vice presidential running mates in 1968. Muskie suffered from his so-called “Crying Speech” in New Hampshire where Muskie appeared to be tearing up when defending himself and his wife against libelous claims. Muskie’s staff later said he was not weeping but had snowflakes in his eyes.
After the convention, McGovern’s fortunes dwindled as he fell behind in all the polls. In August, McGovern accepted the resignation of his vice presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton after Eagleton revealed he had been treated for mental illness. Sargent Shriver of the Kennedy clan replaced Eagleton, but the damage was done.
As the campaign progressed, Nixon used the power of his incumbency and popularity, maintaining a big lead. Nixon profited from unorthodox and pragmatic economic policies in the face of inflation and unemployment, his rapprochements with Communist China and the Soviet Union and the seeming progress he was making in reducing the US commitment in Vietnam.
By the time of McGovern’s campaign stop on September 22nd, Nixon looked unbeatable. Nonetheless, McGovern was greeted enthusiastically by between 7,000 (according to the D & C) and 10,000 (the McGovern campaign’s estimate) who overflowed from Elm Street onto East Main and to Liberty Pole Way.
Described somewhat condescendingly by the Republican-leaning Democrat and Chronicle as a “hodgepodge,” the rally attracted constituents who had propelled McGovern to the nomination: women, blacks and the youth vote. Labor leaders and rank and file — initially hesitant about McGovern — made a good showing.
Midge Constanza — later to serve in the Carter Administration — led the cheers for the Rochester Area Women for Peace, chanting “We Want McGovern.”
As seen in the D & C front page piece, “Agnew Gives McGovern Opening,” Vice President Spiro Agnew had made disparaging comments about McGovern’s patriotism. The biggest applause line came when McGovern — a World War Two air force veteran — thundered back: Don’t Question My Patriotism!
Several still prominent Democrats were at the rally. Co-Chair of Citizens for McGovern was now Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. The other Co-Chair, Richard Rosenbloom, Esq, was later elected a NY Supreme Court Justice.
Recently I contacted Richard who first met McGovern in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At the convention, McGovern and Senator Eugene McCarthy introduced the failed minority plank calling for the unconditional halt of bombing.
Richard was an alternate delegate on the Robert Kennedy [assassinated in June 1968] slate and went to the convention “to help pick up the pieces after his death.” Richard expected Ted Kennedy to run but Kennedy appointed McGovern as the successor. Richard says four years later in 1972, “The Kennedy people were a big help especially with Sargeant Shriver as VP candidate.”
For Richard, the McGovern rally was a great success, estimating the crowd at 10,000. I wondered if McGovern’s supporters thought McGovern could win or were mainly feeling the need to stand up for their deeply held principles?
Both. We definitely thought he would win and support our principles. We inspired masses of high school and college kids and got them involved. Everything was going our way. We had a great candidate, an anti-Vietnam war Senator, former bomber pilot in WWII and college professor and extremely well-spoken and personable. Nixon had many negatives, Watergate was just breaking and the anti-war movement was mushrooming. Agnew was a disaster.
My friends still make fun of my optimism, but the experience fueled my own political career as a Family Court judge in 1975 and Supreme Court Justice in 1980.
Given the results, despite the fervor of McGovern’s supporters, the Republican-leaning Democrat and Chronicle, tending to view McGovern’s campaign as hopelessly quixotic, probably reflected — and shaped — the overall sentiment in Monroe County.
In “McGovern Will Offer Voters Sharp Choice,” the D & C editorial board congratulated McGovern on his nomination. But its praise is rhetorically slippery. The editorial board opens with a rhetorical question: Is McGovern the true apostle of the new politics? Or is he a dangerous ideological adventurer? We sense we know their answer. The editorial also highlights what McGoverns detractors supposedly think:
McGovern is variously dubbed as a dreamer, a radical, inexperienced and naïve on the big issues. They say he’s antagonized organized labor . . . It’s fine, say the detractors, to speak of the “new breed” of blacks, youth and women gathered in the field. But will they come through in November?
The editors do say that “Sen. McGovern is man of superb dedication and personal integrity,” but the board’s persuasive strategy has already given away enough fodder as to why not the vote for McGovern.
In 1968, the D & C editorial board strongly endorsed candidate Nixon. Four years later its support is firm but more measured. As for McGovern — no surprise — the board says: “Sen. McGovern simply has not made the case for being elected President . . . And while no one doubts his moral fervor or his deep conviction on the war issue, he still has a wobbly look about him.”
The board accepted those troubled that Nixon had not yet ended the war despite having said in 1968: Those who have a chance for four years and could not produce peace should not be given another four years. Nonetheless, the editorial cites Nixon’s progress and adds, “there is feeling that peace, so long delayed, is just around the corner.” The board also praises Nixon’s “personal pilgrimages to Russia and particularly China.”
The slow developing Watergate scandal is only briefly mentioned. While not approving of other examples of Republican “political shenanigans,” the board suggests — though not definitive — neither Nixon nor his top aides were involved in knowing about or giving orders for the “bugging.”
The editorial concludes: “We feel as if we know our man, imperfections and all.”
As it did in ’68, the D & C, somewhat mystifyingly, vociferously supported Agnew despite his gaffes and inflammatory rhetoric. That support did not look so wise when Agnew resigned in October 1973 after Federal corruption charges.
As mentioned, Nixon did not campaign in 1972, but did visit on June 18th, 1971. That visit was perhaps a harbinger of Nixon’s appeal a year and a half later. The pictures tell the story. On the one hand are Vietnam War protesters gathered outside the Flagship Hotel in Pittsford. On the other are images of the supposed “Silent Majority” Nixon wooed: a group of construction workers and an elderly woman.
As we did in ’68, we turn to the mastery of historian, political commentator and liberal centrist Theodore White, in this case The Making of the President 1972 (1973). White traces the important events of the campaign: China, the shooting of Wallace, Eagleton, Watergate, the October Paris Peace Talks, the 49 state landslide.
Initially, for all the remembrances of 49 state landslides, White highlights an often overlooked aspect. Nixon — it would haunt him — did not win an across the board mandate. A 60.7% to 37.5% spread seemingly should have provoked a tidal wave of Republicanism. But the Republicans only won 13 more seats in the House and actually lost two in the Senate: As White writes:
For all the passion on McGovern’s side, it seems they picked the wrong man.
White begins with Nixon’s pilgrimage to China, unofficially marking the beginning of the campaign. Coupled with Nixon’s May visit to the Soviet Union, the détente initiatives etched in the public mind a powerful image: Nixon was not an inflexible Cold Warrior.
White sees the May 15th shooting of George Wallace and his exit from the campaign as a decisive moment. At the time of the shooting, Wallace was doing even better than in ’68 when, as an independent candidate, Wallace won several southern states and siphoned votes from Nixon. As late as March 1972, Robert Fitch of the Nixon campaign said, “Our entire campaign strategy depends on whether George Wallace make a run on his own.”
After May 15th, White writes, “With that elimination [Wallace], the re-election of the President was finally, irrevocably, assured.” Nixon won in the South bigger than any Republican before or since.
The coup de grace was in late October when Nixon and Kissinger engineered the Paris Peace Talks, declaring: peace is at hand. At the August Republican Convention, Nixon was greeted by 3,000 anti-war protesters. Two months later, his response took away much of what was left of McGovern’s bite.
White retells what we know about Watergate. The worst revelations came too late to cripple Nixon; Sirica would not revive the investigations until after Nixon’s inauguration in 1973. White speculates had it not been for Watergate, Nixon’s “stunning 61 – 38 victory might have gone as high as 65 – 35, for a record that might never again be approached in American two-party history. The Watergate affair blew that opportunity.” White adds had the full story of Watergate and its companion fundraising scandals been thoroughly exposed, Nixon would have won in the 55 – 45 area.
White thinks the hard truth is that no Democrat could have been elected in 1972. For what it’s worth, at Brighton’s Twelve Corners Elementary School, the students had a mock vote. I and a majority of students voted for McGovern — as if we were a mini-Massachusetts.
By the time White writes The Making of the President 1972, Nixon had not yet resigned. But Nixon’s glorious 49 state sweep was becoming his bittersweet memory, a fall that White thinks actually increased Americans belief in their political system.SEE When the P.A. announcer told us Nixon had resigned. On the passing of Anna Silver and a most memorable Silver Stadium game
“I did not attend the 1972 Democratic Convention as a delegate, but as a member of the press. I was able to secure a press pass from the Webster Herald. It seems so long ago and my notes from the event no longer exist.
The 1972 Convention was the first one that benefitted from major changes to the rules and procedures of the Democratic Party. There were many more persons on color and a significant increase in the number of women delegates. The women in the Monroe County delegation not only represented the party, but also such organizations as the National Organization of Women and peace organizations.
The 1972 Democratic Party faced some of the same characteristics that it confronted in 2016. In 1972 the liberal faction nominated the candidate while in 2016 it was the centrist faction of the party. The key issue was the Vietnam War. There was much “street” theater – both inside the convention hall and in the streets.”
In 2016, the democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders run for the Democratic nomination drew parallels with McGovern’s 1972 campaign. For clarity, we turn to Talker‘s, political scientist Dr. Bruce Howard Kay:
“McGovern’s 1972 campaign certainly evokes Bernie Sanders’ run during the 2016 primary campaign. In 1972 — close to the height of opposition to the Vietnam War — the left wing of the Democrat party was in ascendance, represented in men like McGovern, Eugene McCarthy and Ted Kennedy. In some ways, McGovern was carrying on the mantle of Bobby Kennedy, assassinated before he could embark on his own presidential campaign in 1968. From this perspective, McGovern seemed the man for the moment. At the same time, McGovern was rejected by an electorate not amenable to his left wing message.
In 2016, the left wing of the Democratic Party was galvanized. For a while, Bernie Sanders — motivating younger voters as did McGovern — seemed the man for the moment with his improbably successful primary run. In 2016 as Sanders was rising, skittish establishment Democrats looked back to McGovern and 1972. Look, they said, if we nominate Sanders it will be 1972 all over again. We’ll suffer another historic defeat.
But that comparison might not have been fair. Of course, we don’t know how Sanders would have fared in a general election against Trump. Unlike McGovern who faced a popular incumbent, Sanders would have faced an unproven commodity who ultimately did not win the popular vote. More importantly, after 1972 the Democratic party moved to the center, culminating in the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 2018, the Democratic party does not seem to be moving to the center, given the popularity of figures like Elizabeth Warren and even Bernie — if he can make it to 2020.”
THE Presidential Visits Series