March 22, 2008



The next day, the business was voting on platform resolutions. McGovern operatives begged the women’s and gay liberationists to drop their demand for floor votes on their planks to moderate the Democrats’ image for TV. These operatives ruefully discovered that political purists could also act like ward bosses, extracting their own pounds of flesh. The gays reminded them of how McGovern would not have won the coveted spot at the top of the California primary ballot if it weren’t for a last-minute signature drive in the gay bars of the Castro by the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club. “We do not come to you pleading for your understanding or pleading for your tolerance,” San Francisco delegate Jim Foster pronounced during his ten minutes. “We come to you affirming our pride in our lifestyle, affirming validity to seek and maintain meaningful emotional relationships, and affirming our right to participate in the life of this country on an equal basis with every citizen.”

The TV lights made his light-colored linen jacket with its patchwork of thick lines look particularly garish. Then delegate Kathleen Wilch of Ohio went to the podium on behalf of McGovern. She asked delegates to vote against the gay rights plank: It would “commit the Democratic Party to seek repeal of all laws involving the protection of children from sexual approaches by adults” and force “repeal of all laws relating to prostitution, pandering, pimping”—and “commit this party to repeal many laws designed to protect the young, the innocent, and the weak.”

McGovern’s convention rejected gay rights in a landslide. Be that as it may, one week later, George Meany officially announced the AFL-CIO wouldn’t be endorsing a presidential candidate that year. At a steelworkers’ convention in September, he explained why: The “Democratic Party has been taken over by people named Jack who look like Jills and smell like johns.”

Then, the acrimonious battle over the abortion plank: “In matters relating to human reproduction each person’s right to privacy, freedom of choice, and individual conscience should be fully respected, consistent with relevant Supreme Court decisions.”

A “pro-choice” woman took the podium: “The freedom of all people to control their own fertility must be an essential human health right. . . . For the first time, 57 percent of all Americans believe abortion should be a decision between a woman and her physician.”

Then a “right-to-life” man spoke on “the slaughter of the most innocent whose right to live is not mentioned in the minority report.”

Then Shirley MacLaine spoke her piece in favor of her candidate’s position: equivocation. The subject should be “kept out of the political process,” she said, though delegates should “vote their conscience.” Some 250 McGovern floor whips raced once more up and down the aisles to defeat the plank, insisting Humphrey and Wallace supporters were conspiring to saddle McGovern with the “extremism” label to deny him the nomination. The plank lost by 472 votes. “Sisters vs. Sisters,” headlined the Washington Post the next morning: “Gloria Steinem’s usually controlled monotone quivered as she wept in rage, verbally attacked Gary Hart, and called McGovern strategists ‘bastards.’” The paper also quoted a pro-choice Humphrey supporter: “I resent the McGovern people who say he is so pure. One of the reasons so many women supported him six months ago was because they thought he was liberal on abortion.”

The New Politics reformers had fantasized a pure politics, a politics of unyielding principle—an antipolitics. But in the real world, politics without equivocation or compromise is impossible. Thus an unintended consequence for the would-be antipolitician. Announcing one’s inflexibility sabotages him in advance. Every time he makes a political decision, he looks like a sellout. The reformers fantasized an open politics, in which all points of view had time to be heard. That meant that the Tuesday session adjourned eleven hours after it began, at 6:15 am—a fortunate thing, coolheaded Democratic strategists decided, terrified over what this all looked like on TV.

• • • • •

On nomination day, Humphrey officially announced his withdrawal. George McGovern, whose campaign had once been such a long shot the network camera crews called his campaign bus the “morgue patrol,” would be the Democrats’ nominee for president.

Just as in 1968, McGovern was nominated by Connecticut senator Abe Ribicoff. During lulls in the roll call, the band played the theme from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. He was put over the top by one of Dick Daley’s friends, who even announced that his delegation was endorsing the latest liberal crusade: boycotting lettuce in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. McGovern’s tally was 1,864.95 to slightly over 1,000 for everyone else combined. The regulars fell into line. That was what regulars did. “There are two reasons that we are going to win this election,” boomed Oklahoma’s Carl Albert, the man who had done Mayor Daley’s bidding at the podium in 1968 in Chicago. “One is—George McGovern! The other is—Richard Nixon!”

The contenders dutifully stood hands raised together as the balloons dropped: Muskie, Chisholm, Scoop Jackson, Humphrey, who was flashing peace signs. But the 250 McGovern floor managers weren’t able to whip up the traditional resolution to make the nomination unanimous—something even Barry Goldwater had been able to manage. Too much water under the bridge for that. One hippie’s sign during the celebratory demonstration read simply mcgovern sucks! Another, a black man’s, said don’t vote ’72!

George McGovern was learning what a mess of pottage a presidential nomination could be when your defining trait was supposed to be your purity.

It's a significant problem for the Left that they're so immature they fall prey to this sort of messianism. One benefit of the GOP's natural tendency towards hierarchy is that when you always nominate the next in line you've no delusions that he isn't a pol.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 22, 2008 5:38 PM
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