George McGovern, who died today at 90, was the Democratic standard bearer in one of the party’s biggest presidential drubbings, losing to Richard Nixon in 1972 after a chaotic, divided and quixotic campaign. His candidacy was in large part a reaction to the turbulence of 1968, after which party rules were changed to democratize the nomination process and put the balance of power in favor of primaries, rather than party elders.
Even though McGovern’s defeat was resounding, his campaign marked a turning point in the way that Hollywood engages in the electoral process. Thanks largely to Warren Beatty, who served as an unofficial adviser to the campaign, the liberal energy that mobilized to oppose the Vietnam war was channeled into fundraising strength. As Maureen Orth wrote in the Village Voice that year, Beatty masterminded the celebrity fundraising concert, including an April, 1972 event in which Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Carole King, and Quincy Jones performed. It raised $320,000. Jack Nicolson, Cass Elliot and Burt Lancaster served as ushers.
Orth wrote, “In one night Beatty et al have already become the largest fund raisers
in the Democratic Party. In fact, before Beatty started working his
magic, political fund raising in California was dominated by the
Republicans and the traditional Democrats’ favorite candidate, Hubert
Humphrey. McGovern’s only loyal California financial support came from a
small group of Los Angeles anti-war businessmen — his average campaign
contribution is still $26.”
At the time, Beatty said, “It’s not like C. Arnholt Smith contributing money or Frank Sinatra going
out and doing a bunch of concerts for Hubert Humphrey. It’s a whole
group of artists, independent and intelligent people, getting together
on the same bill behind McGovern, the man with the immaculate slate. I’m
not saying people like Carole King, Quincy Jones or Barbra Streisand
couldn’t sell out a concert like this on their own, but having them
together is why we know we’ll sell out.”
The McGovern campaign also helped define Los Angeles’ Westside as a liberal power center, with Norman Lear, Stanley Sheinbaum and Max Palevsky forming what would become affectionately known as the “Malibu Mafia.”
McGovern himself stayed in close touch with his industry supporters many years after the election, and even after he lost his Senate seat during the Reagan revolution of 1980. And given the Watergate scandal that was to take down the Nixon presidency, he was always a bit wistful as to what might have been, arguing that his campaign had a degree of prescience even if it went on to one of the greatest defeats in presidential history.
At an AFI tribune to Beatty in 2008, McGovern called Beatty a “great student of politics”and “a great friend.” Streisand appeared in a video, wondering how different things would have been had he won.
“I agree with Barbra. It might have been better for the country if we prevailed,” McGovern told the audience, who gave him a standing ovation.
Flashback to ’72: McGovern’s best speech may have been “Welcome Home, America,” his acceptance address at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. The trouble was few people saw it, as a poorly timed out convention pushed his speech back past midnight. “It brings the term ‘ad hoc’ to new heights,” Beatty said in the 2005 documentary “One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern.” Nevertheless, Beatty said, “It was a very good speech because he was there with the content.”
The convention pushed issues like gay rights and women’s rights onto the party platform, in a way that had never been done before. Gloria Steinem called it “the only time I had actually been to a convention that looked like the rest of the country.” As unscripted as the convention was, perhaps the last time that such a gathering would not be tightly controlled, it was not the event that ultimately ruined McGovern’s chances for good. That was the ill-fated selection of Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, leading to his bowing out from the campaign and McGovern’s search for a replacement, Sargent Shriver.
Gary Hart, McGovern’s campaign manager that year, said that the disorganization of the convention that year nevertheless saved the Democratic Party.
He writes on the Huffington Post, The control of power-brokers and party bosses was broken. Decrepit
political machines largely collapsed. The political media thrived on the
colorful diversity of the delegates at the 1972 Democratic convention
in Miami. It was less than orderly, in the manner of true democracy. But
the chaos of Chicago was avoided. And rather than split into several
Democratic parties, which would have occurred if the new rules had not
been adopted, today’s Democratic Party survived and has elected three
Democratic presidents since then.