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Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in '72

Page 4 of 6

Ed: What happened when you arrived in Sioux Falls?

HST: Well, there was a very sad kind of... welcome-home rally for George McGovern and... One final note on the Zoo Plane. I think it was a tradition dating back to one of the Kennedy campaigns... At every hotel, wherever the campaign press corps stopped, there would be maybe a hundred rooms reserved for the press. And everyone upon checking out would keep their keys, and we brought the keys on the plane and taped them along the aisle. The keys jingled like a giant tambourine on every takeoff... They were taped next to each other in a solid row along both top racks above the seats. There were maybe 5000 hotel keys...

Ed: From the entire campaign?

HST: Every hotel in the country, it looked like. And I think on the last day of the campaign, one of the CBS cameramen put them all in a huge bag. He was going to take them to one mailbox in Washington and dump them all in there... Then they were going to film the behavior of the postman when he opened the box and found 5000 hotel keys... it must have weighed 200 pounds... that was the kind of twisted humor that prevailed on the Zoo Plane.

Ed: What did McGovern do on Election Day?

HST: Well, he spent most of the afternoon at a country club reception ... it was the first time I'd ever seen him drinking... sort of casually and openly in public . . .

Ed: Was he drinking more heavily than usual?

HST: Not heavily, but he wasn't worried about walking up to the bar and saying... uh... let me have... a... vodka and orange juice. Normally a presidential candidate wouldn't do that. He'd have somebody else go get it for him... and if anybody asked what he was drinking, he'd say "orange juice." But by that time McGovern no longer cared what people thought about his minor vices. Particularly the press corps... A weird relationship develops when you follow a candidate for a long time. You become sort of a... friendly antagonist... to the extent sometimes where it can get dangerous... It certainly did in this campaign during the last month or so... In my case I became more of a flack for McGovern than... than a journalist. Which is probably why I made that disastrous bet, although there wasn't a reporter in the press corps who thought that George would lose by more than ten points... except Joe Alsop; he said McGovern wouldn't get more than 40% of the vote.

They had a giant press room set up with a free bar, about 50 typewriters, and six TV consoles at one end of the room and I think the general impression was that we'd sort of filter in there about six o'clock... which would be seven, Eastern Time... when the polls closed in New York and Massachusetts... and we would sort of watch the deal go down slowly. I think we all assumed that by midnight it would be over. The only question was how bad it would be... But what happened as it turned out was that... well, I decided rather than go to the press room, I'd go up and watch the first TV returns with some of McGovern's closest staff people. It seemed more fitting somehow to go up to the ninth floor where most of the staffers were staying and watch the first returns with some of McGovern's key people, the ones who were closest to him. I knew that John Holum and Sandy Berger, two speechwriters, were staying in a room up there, so I picked up the house phone in the lobby about 6:15... I'd heard that some of the results had come in but I didn't know what they were at that point... and it didn't seem to make much difference... Too early, I thought... when Holum answered I asked if he was busy and if he wasn't I'd like to come up and have a drink and sit around and wait for the results ... He said, "Don't bother... It's all over... We've been wiped... Shit, we're losing everything!"

Ed: What time was this?

HST: Shortly after six... Central Time. So that was what... five o'clock Eastern Time... No seven Eastern Time, excuse me... and four California time... It was really all over by then. By 6:30 there wasn't a person at the Holiday Inn who didn't know what had happened. There was never any question of winning, but the shock set in when people began to sense the dimensions of it, how bad it was.... And the tip-off there was... I'm not sure... but... first it was when Ohio went down ... no, Illinois... that's right, it was Illinois... When Illinois went by 11 points you could almost feel the shudder that went through the place because Illinois was where they had Gene Pokorny, their best organizer. He was a real wizard. He's the one who did the Wisconsin primary. And Illinois was the key state so they put their best person in. They had to have Illinois. If the election had been close Illinois would have been critical, and with Daley coming around there was at least a possibility that Illinois would go for McGovern. But if Pokorny couldn't carry Illinois – when it went down by 11 points, a feeling of shock and doom came over the whole place. Nobody talked.

I think about eight o'clock I was sitting in the coffee shop eating a hamburger... no, pea soup it was... I didn't feel like eating, but somebody insisted I have something... I was feeling depressed... And John Holum came in. I could see that he'd been crying... and... he's not the kind of person you'd expect to see walking around in public with tears all over his face. I said why don't you sit down and have a beer, or some pea soup or whatever... And he said, "No, I think it's about time to go upstairs and write the statement." He was going to write McGovern's concession statement and... you could see he was about to crack again... and that's what he did, he turned and walked out of the coffee shop and into the elevator.

I think McGovern slept through the first returns. Holum woke him up and asked him what he wanted to say... and... McGovern was very cool for a while till he read the statement that Holum had written... he typed a first draft, then woke George up and said, "Here it is... we have to go over about ten o'clock to the coliseum and... do it." It was sort of a giant auditorium... where a big crowd of mainly young people were waiting for McGovern... and all the national press and the network cameras.

Ed: But first he read the statement that Holum had written for him.

HST: Yeah... That was the only time McGovern cracked. For about a minute he broke down and... and... and couldn't talk for a few minutes. Then he got himself together... He was actually the coolest person in the place from then on. Other people were cracking all around.

The trip back to Washington from Sioux Falls borders on the worst trip I've ever taken in my life. I was on the Zoo Plane. Apparently the atmosphere on the Dakota Queen was something very close to a public hanging of a good friend. When we got to the Washington National Airport, we landed at a... I think it was a Coast Guard terminal somewhere away from the commercial terminal and all of the McGovern national staff people from Washington were there... it was easily the worst scene of the campaign ... I'd thought that election night was the worst thing I'd been through. But this was the most depressing experience I've had in a long, long time... Far more depressing than, for instance, than getting beaten myself, in any kind of political race in Colorado. There was something... total... something very undermining about the McGovern defeat... a shock. There was a very unexplained kind of... ominous quality to it... So when we got to Washington... the national staff people were there and the wives of the people who had been on the plane... and it was a scene of just complete... weeping chaos. People you'd never expect to break down ... stumbled off the plane in tears, and... it was... I don't know like a ... funeral after a mass murder or something... there was no way to describe it, a kind of ... falling apart. Mass disintegration. . . .

It was such a shock to me that although I'd gone back to Washington to analyze ... the reasons for McGovern's defeat and the dimensions of it, when I saw that scene at the airport... and I saw how ripped up people were, you know, unable to even focus, much less think or talk ... I decided to hell with this ... I can't stay around here ... so I just went right around to the main terminal and got on another plane and went back to Colorado.

Ed: You never left the airport?

HST: Well.. I was looking for a cab to get across the main terminal ... it was about a mile away... and Sandy Berger... appeared in his car ... he was one of the people who had broken down earlier . . .

Ed: Who is Sandy Berger?

HST: He was one of the speechwriters... a first-class speechwriter, one of the two or three who were with McGovern all the way through from Miami on, and ... It was rush hour in Washington and we had to go down one side of a freeway. There was a big grass island about 18 inches high and 12 feet wide separating the two... freeways . .. six lanes, three in each direction... Sandy thought he was giving Tim Crouse and me a ride into town but we said we were going over to the main terminal to catch another plane, and he said, "Oh, back there, eh?"... And right smack in the middle of rush-hour traffic in Washington, right straight across the island ... up over this huge bump, in a driving rain, he made a highspeed U-turn right over the island and back into the other lane, and cars were skidding at us, coming sideways and fishtailing, trying to avoid us ... That was the kind of mood the McGovern people were in. I don't think he cared whether anybody hit us or not. It scared the hell out of me ... But we made it to the terminal and I bought a ticket for Denver, and... just got the hell out of Washington.

"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." – Jeremiah 8:20

"Just why the American electorate gave the present administration such an overwhelming mandate in November remains something of a mystery to me. I firmly believed throughout 1971 that the major hurdle to winning the presidency was winning the Democratic nomination. I believed that any reasonable Democrat would defeat President Nixon. I now think that no one could have defeated him in 1972." – Sen. George McGovern, speaking at Oxford University two months after the election.

* * *

After months of quasi-public brooding on the Whys and Wherefores of the disastrous beating he absorbed last November, McGovern seems finally to have bought the Conventional Wisdom – that his campaign was doomed from the start: conceived in a fit of hubris, born in a momentary power-vacuum that was always more mirage than reality, borne along on a tide of frustration churned up by liberal lint-heads and elitist malcontents in the Eastern Media Establishment, and finally bashed into splinters on the reefs of at least two basic political realities that no candidate with good sense would ever have tried to cross in the first place.... To wit:

(1) Any incumbent President is unbeatable, except in a time of mushrooming national crisis or a scandal so heinous – and with such obvious roots in the White House – as to pose a clear and present danger to the financial security and/or physical safety of millions of voters in every corner of the country.

(2) The "mood of the nation," in 1972, was so overwhelmingly vengeful, greedy, bigoted and blindly reactionary that no presidential candidate who even faintly reminded "typical voters" of the fear & anxiety they'd felt during the constant "social upheavals" of the Sixties had any chance at all of beating Nixon last year – not even Ted Kennedy – because the "pendulum effect" that began with Nixon's slim victory in '68 was totally irreversible by 1972. After a decade of left-bent chaos, the Silent Majority was so deep in a behavorial sink that their only feeling for politics was a powerful sense of revulsion. All they wanted in the White House was a man who would leave them alone and do anything necessary to bring calmness back into their lives – even if it meant turning the whole state of Nevada into a concentration camp for hippies, niggers, dope fiends, do-gooders, and anyone else who might threaten the status quo. The Pendulum Theory is very voguish these days, especially among Washington columnists and in the more prestigious academic circles, where the conversion-rate has been running at almost epidemic proportions since the night of November 7th. Until then, it had not been considered entirely fashionable to go around calling ex-Attorney General John Mitchell a "prophet" because of his smiling prediction, in the summer of 1970, that "This country is going so far to the right that you won't recognize it."

This is the nut of the Pendulum Theory. It is also a recurring theme in McGovern's personal analysis of why the voters rejected him so massively last November. The loss itself didn't really surprise him. Not even the Eagleton debacle, he insisted, could explain away the fact that the American people had come within an eyelash of administering the worst defeat in the history of presidential politics to a gentle, soft-spoken and essentially conservative Methodist minister's son from the plains of South Dakota.

* * *

"Senator William Fulbright, discussing McGovern's misfortunes with a half-dozen fellow Democrats one evening late in the campaign, said he wanted a McGovern presidency 'because George is such an ordinary man.... I don't mean ordinary in any negative sense, but the presidency was designed for ordinary men – not for a succession of so many larger-than-life men on horseback. If George McGovern were President he wouldn't stand for a CIA or FBI pushing people around the way they do now, or the Pentagon building and buying what it pleased. He wouldn't stand for price fixing or these outrages against people who work for wages and pay their taxes. And you can be damned sure he wouldn't try to prove his manhood by prolonging a war that shouldn't have been started in the first place. It's a damned shame all this has happened to George, because I don't know how long it will be until we have a President who feels like that.'"

– Washington Monthly, May, 1973

I hung around Washington for a few days after the DNC purge, buying up all the cheap smack I could find... and on Wednesday afternoon I stopped at McGovern's office in the Old Senate Office Building for an hour or so of talk with him. He was gracious, as always, despite the fact that I was an hour late. I tried to explain it away by telling him I'd had a bit of trouble that morning: A girl had been arrested in my suite at the Washington Hilton. He nodded sympathetically, without smiling, and said that yes, John Holum had already told him about it.

I shook my head sadly. "You never know these days," I said. "Where will it end?"

He walked around the desk and sat down in his chair, propping his feet up on the middle drawer. I half-expected him to ask me why a girl had been arrested in my hotel room, but it was clear from the look on his face that his mind had already moved on to whatever might come next. McGovern is a very private person – which might be part of the reason why not even his friends call him "George" – and you get the feeling, after being around him for a while, that he becomes uncomfortable when people start getting personal.

I was tempted for a moment to push on with it, to keep a straight face and start mumbling distractedly about strange and unsettling events connected with the arrest – pornographic films that had allegedly been made on the Zoo Plane, Ted Van Dyk busted for pimping at the "Issues" desk – but he seemed so down that I didn't have the heart to hassle him, even as a friendly joke.... Besides I had my professional reputation to uphold. I was, after all, the National Affairs Editor of Rolling Stone.

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