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« As American as apple pie, deep dish pizza, and gangsters: politics the Chicago Way | Main | »


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El Jefe

"His problem was that he was too proud of his reputation for decency for his own political good."

So he was Carter four years early then? :) Yes, that's only partways true of Carter (whose other problem, one that dovetailed in his background as naval officer, small businessman, and trained engineer, was his stubborn pride in being able to think whatever the problem was through to the right answer, and the defensive need, shared by many smart people especially on our side of the political fence, to be right about everything in order to avoid the pain and interpersonal consequences of being wrong, and through "wrongness" being flawed and vulnerable, which with Carter carried over into the Sin of Pride by his compulsive micromanagement that said, loudly, "yes I am right about everything.") Bless Catholics, communicant and recovering -- yourself very much included -- for reminding us just how much the real original sin, Pride, accounts for. And how often, like the other sort of tragic heroism besides hubris, it can emerge unwanted but totally authentic from a person's best qualities.

It seems like we had a long cycle of that on our side of the political fence, while the fixers were unfortunately evolving from the labor/city-machine types whom McGovern needed to owe in order to survive, to the DLC corporate/American Bar Association Glee Club types who Bill Clinton in particular owed with a bit too much enthusiasm (another of Edwards' sins, to my mind and as a North Carolinian by raisin', was that despite the populism he talked and that his late wife believed in, he was far too comfortably a part of that crowd before and during his Senate career.) First Monsignor Bobby, then McGovern (who RFK famously called "the only honest man in the Senate" which was I think a fine expression of both men's unctiousness about honesty), then the Man From Plains, then Gary Hart (the path-not-quite-taken in '80s Democratic politics, since Hart had a mashup of Kennedy vices from Bobby's unctiousness to Jack's adultery, without the pedigree), and in many ways I would include the younger Gore in the category as well.

A second thought that crops up in the midst of that: how these types and sorts of politicians were tied to the development of the Presidential primary process on our side of the fence. Bobby (and Gene McCarthy, the reductio ad absurdum of morally upright Democratic candidates of principle) helped invent the leverage of the modern primary, McGovern codified it in the post-'68 reforms and then used it (with his young campaign maven Gary Hart) to outflank the grandees in '72, Carter rode it to the White House despite damn near undoing his own campaign as an individual candidate after the convention (my mother, as ironclad a Democrat as ever lived, cast a protest vote for her man Mo Udall in Ohio of all places, where she nearly decided the state with that choice in the '76 general it was so tight), and Hart came within an eyelash of pulling a McGovern on Mondale in '84. We all know about the "Comeback Kid" and "No-Drama Obama" and their now-legendary primary seasons. There's a theme I'm chasing here without quite hearing the music clearly; the part where McGovern, so often reviled for so long, is the architect of the Democratic Party's modern process for president-pickin' is just the most obvious bit.

Also, of course, it's all a reminder of how much Bobby's death profoundly altered -- deformed -- our presidential politics. Not that I think he would have been the nominee that year (California let him hang on by his fingernails, thanks to many people like my mother, mentioned again because she was a die-hard Humphrey gal since his days as a civil-rights crusader, who voted for Kennedy to stop McCarthy and because he was an acceptable second-choice believer in social justice.) Rather, I suspect Rayburn, Mansfield, and the bosses would have gone around Lyndon and argued a grand bargain Humphrey/Kennedy ticket to try and keep some of the youth and most of the Catholic vote on board. But without him? You have '68, you have McGovern running as his surrogate, you have Carter running and winning as the anti-Watergate candidate (a direct consequence) and spurned from the very moment of his nomination by far too many liberals convinced the banner belonged in Teddy's hands, then Ted's fatuous 1980 campaign, even some (not all, but some) of the love for early Bill Clinton, fanboy of Kennedy politics that he was like so many other Boomers. Hell, we could even through in Poppy Bush and his Second Ford Administration, likewise a consequence of the Trouser of Time we went down after June 6, 1968. It's like a morbid bookend: McKinley's assassination accidentally put a full-throated Progressive in the White House, the most extraordinary of the breed besides Bob LaFollette, and so opened up a generational process by which progressive politics moved even further left in the Thirties. This, the other most broadly decisive political assassination in American history, shut that door and opened a worse one.

Nice one with the trivia question about the "Three As." Scoop Jackson was accused for years, and he sure repeated it, but I'll guess you're talking about the more recent and much more ironic evidence about who said it first? Talk about "just politics"....

El Jefe

A few other, briefer thoughts post-trick-or-treating (Pacific time):

So, of course, while he was busy trying to free up and ennoble electoral democracy through direct-vote primaries, McGovern helped codify and kick-start the perpetual horserace. But I think that has more to do with his forgetting the context in which his principles operated: the ever-revolving wheel of money and patronage(different then but still very much present) and the Newtonian fact that in every age court scribes (in this case the "Boys on the Bus") are shits.

Thanks for being yet another good voice on the heedless demonization of shock therapy (the real kind, not the economic metaphor.) The shadow side of the romantic individualists at work; rather than concentrating more serious effort on ending genuinely awful practices like the lobotomization of "hysterical" women or the barbarism of most general-population mental health facilities (both ended finally by more "old-fashioned" political operators with consciences), they villified something that worked better than most of those awful first-generation drugs and operated (except in those already-awful confined mental wards) with the full knowledge and consent of patients. I've known people in my parents' generation -- not family, but close friends -- who got enormous benefit, in the universe of medically possible benefits then, from it. In their world, Eagleton's combination of relief and post-traumatic denial (the trauma of depression, not the therapy) that led him to prevaricate about his health is far more believable than the Keseyfication of the procedure.

Republican vice-presidential picks consistently suck (with the exceptions, in that already fetid universe of discourse, of G.H.W. Bush in 1980 and Jack Kemp in '96) because since 1945 in particular they have been far more consistently an effort to speak to the loyal base than Dems' picks. (Democratic picks being more often efforts to keep our big tent stitched together.) And that loyal base is bloody awful. Paul Ryan is the natural "then as superannuated frat-boy farce" heir to the Nixonian impulse, a nasty little rainbow of pure right-wing id. I'm really looking forward, as it looks like the President may get a little bounce from Sandy (right off the Sopranoish frame of Chris Christie), to Romney having to rush back and froth at the base to make sure they don't throw up their hands over the weekend, and to the Villagers tying themselves in knots not harrumphing at his failure to reassure the peasants by continuing the obligatory "tack to the center." Not sure whether I find his efforts to bullshit the low-infos that he's Gerry Ford funny or pathetic. They're sure in character though. And that's where I'd much rather have a McGovern, or even a Carter, or even in our fallen age, a Christie who I can hate but who talks straight.

El Jefe

One last thought (no, really) in the form of a question, about the times and about what the book has to say. I know Marvella was going through her first round with cancer at the time, but why in God's name didn't McGovern turn to Birch Bayh? Another red-state Democrat, a fierce liberal, much more connected in temperament and practice to the New Deal coalition, friend of Teddy Kennedy, relatively young, and the father of Title IX and 18-year-old voting. It writes itself -- and I suspect Marvella would have pushed Birch to accept -- so I wonder what Glasser has to say about why that horse wasn't bought on the first day of the auction.

Lance Mannion

El Jefe, Bayh gets only two quick mentions in the book. Glasser has him on the list of possible VPs McGovern's Campaign Manager Gary Hart put together, but he doesn't say whether Bayh turned McGovern down or if he was even asked. As I said, my memory of the election is unreliable. I was a kid and I was following my father's part in it more than the election itself, but I think Bayh was on the long list of those asked to replace Eagleton, but Glasser doesn't really get into that sad story. The Eighteen-Day Running Mate pretty much ends with Eagleton's resignation from the ticket.

El Jefe

Thanks, Lance. I've wondered sometimes: there's the obvious horse-trading element where Bayh was never so clearly tied to a money-and-voters machine like Eagleton was, and Bayh isn't Catholic (there was good cause to worry that working-class Catholics, a Democratic ingredient since Copperhead days, were leaving the ship), but there might also have been some personal animus. Even "too decent for American politics" (and like you I hate the phrase and its implication) doesn't mean "unnaturally cheery towards every living human." On a separate but related thing I think, and it depresses me a little since I genuinely like the guy (not as much as his dad, but there you are), that Gore picking Lieberman may have been exactly an expression of that pridefully-upright streak, one of the only ways he could chastise Clinton in public as he might have liked to at the time in private. And, just as surely as Glasser's example but in a different way, it was self-destructive.

Ralph H.

McGovern's only chance in 1972 was for George Wallace to still be in the race and "out-Southern" Nixon. The assassination attempt squelched that hope. I supported Nixon that year, as I had in 1968, and still regard him as the only palatable Republican of my era. Sure, he was a truly disgusting political hack who eventually and deservedly self-destructed, but apart from that (!) he was a moderate, somewhat progressive chief executive who did a lot of good in both domestic and foreign affairs. Go ahead, mock me...

Bill Murray

Eagleton was the guy who gave Novak the amnesty, abortion and acid phrase (although originally it was pot not acid).

"So he was Carter four years early then? :)"

Carter's work against McGovern in 1972 kin d of makes a mockery of his record for decency.

Lance Mannion

Ralph, good point about Wallace. Do you think that might have been the only chance for Muskie or Humphrey if either one of them had been the nominee too? My first real memories of Nixon begin with the Watergate hearings, so for me his accomplishments as President are background to the tragedy in which he starred as villain and I can't see the "real" Nixon any more than I can see the real Richard III. I tend to think the country would have been better off all around if we'd gotten President Humphrey in 1968 and leave it at that. But there's no doubt that he did do some very good things.

Bill, yep, it was Eagleton. I wonder when McGovern found that out and what he thought. I assume you mean a mockery of Carter's record for decency?

El Jefe, I don't know anything about McGovern and Bayh's relationship. Mondale and McGovern were good friends and Mondale turned down the VP offer cold. Interesting side note, I saw a post by John Dean the other day in which Dean expressed a great deal of admiration for McGovern and according to Dean one of McGovern's best friends in the Senate was...Barry Goldwater! John Kennedy and Goldwater were friends too.

El Jefe

Lance & Ralph,

Well, Nixon did sign off on some very good things 1) because the American political conversation really was different in those days and even for someone who belonged to the angry middle-class suburban white guys wing of the Republican Party (who had helped invent it, in fact) Nixon could take credit for some "common ground" legislation that actually was common ground and 2) it was a good way to keep a still-meaningfully Democratic Congress out of his hair while he did what he preferred, foreign policy and making his paranoid fears real by trying to destroy his enemies.

Bill Murray,

Re Eagleton: yep seconded. And (this isn't a knock, more a sign of my own lack of clarity) I left myself open to muddling up being decent with "decency." (In the same fashion, I tend to distinguish between the "nice guys" Lance has skewered in many a book and movie review and kind guys, for whom the artifice of "nice" is unnecessary.) In his tetchy middle age in particular, Carter was more often guilty of "decency" than showing the gumption to be decent, though to his credit he's improved his batting average over time. And that same slippery slope, where genuine morality sidles back and forth into pridefulness, was a thread I was fiddling with wrt various Democratic candidates and even nominees since '68.

Lance again,

Thanks for the info on Mondale, I'd never heard that story. The Goldwater friendship I was aware of, if only because my dad was a Congressional Fellow two years before the hearing and got to run paperwork back and forth for various Capitol Hill players. (He used to intimidate his boss at a North Carolina public university by keeping a signed picture from Sam Ervin with the old boy in front at a Senate hearing and Dad, running a message for the congressman for whom he worked, seated behind Ervin, sporting the longest sideburns I've ever seen on my father. The early Seventies have a lot to answer for. About the later years I'm waiting kind of eagerly for your Argo review ....)

Ralph H.

In 1973 while living in the DC area (still in the Air Force) I knew a wonkish poli-sci guy who explained to me that until Wallace got shot out of the race it was close to a 40-40-20 split, and McGovern might just have pulled it out. As it was, I think he did get around 40% of the vote -- have to look it up. As for Humphrey, I had an instinctive dislike for him at the time, possibly absorbed from Hunter S. Thompson (yeah, I was a "fanboy"), who truly loathed him. Subsequently I came to respect his legislative achievements, which were held in high regard by LBJ among others, but I think he had zero cred on national defense and, as we've learned, was a blabbermouth when it came to sensitive classified info. (Hard for me to overlook, having spent most of my adult life with a security clearance.)

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