Forty years after, it is still surprising that so many historians, journalists, and concerned Americans want to talk about the 1972 presidential election. George McGovern lost. Even more to the point, America lost. He routinely accepted his share of responsibility for this. But a large percentage of America's voters spoke and, for all that transpired thereafter, they bear some responsibility also. It didn't take long after Watergate broke for the bumper strips to appear: "Don't Blame Me. I Voted for McGovern."
Since then, my singular argument has been that George McGovern, and those who supported him, helped save the Democratic Party. A number of months after the chaotic Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, I met Senator McGovern and shortly after that began to help organize his national candidacy. During that period he was chairman of the McGovern Commission, established by the Democratic National Committee after Chicago to recommend reforms in party delegate selection rules for 1972 and conventions to follow.
Those rules were designed to open party participation, especially in nominating candidates, to women, minorities, and young people. The reforms succeeded and the Democratic Party opened itself up to democratic participation. 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.
George McGovern was passionate, in his laconic South Dakota manner, about ending an unwinnable war in Vietnam, reducing nuclear dangers, and eliminating hunger at home and abroad. But his most important legacy will be his rescue of the Democratic Party.
Two years after his defeat in 1972, I joined him in the Senate. During my race for the Senate in Colorado, I was told I had to disavow my previous two-year involvement on behalf of Senator McGovern. I said at the Democratic Convention in Denver: If the price of receiving my party's nomination is to distance myself from George McGovern, it is too high a price to pay. And I refused to pay it.
It was somewhat strange for him and for me to join him as an equal after being so recently a campaign worker, especially since I had never sought nor been elected to public office before. I'm not aware of it ever happening, at least in recent political history. But we were friends and became close colleagues. It was even stranger 12 years later to be a candidate for president myself and to be joined later in that race by Senator McGovern. That surely was a first. But, despite some bruises, our friendship did survive.
We will never know the nature of a McGovern presidency. But someday the American Democratic Party will find a way to honor him as it should. I am honored to have known him and to have served with him.
Read Gary Hart's recent post about George McGovern: "Winners and Losers"
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