Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in '72

Page 5 of 6

He was obviously anxious to get on with it, so I set up the tape recorder and asked him about a comment he'd made shortly after the election about the split in the Democratic party. He had told a group of reporters who flew down to talk with him at Henry Kimmel man's house in the Virgin Islands that he wasn't sure if the two wings of the party could be put back together.... But the part of the quote that interested me more was where he said he wasn't sure if they should be put back together. "What did you mean by that?" I asked. "Are you thinking about something along the lines of a fourth party?"

[The following McGovern/HST interview is a verbatim transcript of their conversation that day – totally unedited and uncorrected by the author, editor, or anyone else.]

McGovern: No, I was not suggesting a major break-up of the Democratic party. We had been talking earlier about Connally's role, you know, and also about so-called Democrats for Nixon that had formed in the campaign, and they had asked me what I thought could be done to bring those people back in. Well, I don't think they ever really belonged in the Democratic party. I thought that it wasn't just a matter of personality differences with me or ideological differences with me. I thought that basically they were more at home in the Republican party and I wasn't sure that we ought to make the kind of gestures that would bring them back.

HST: Were you talking specifically about... ?

McGovern: Well, I was really talking about this organized group rather than the defection of large numbers of blue-collar workers, which I regard as a serious problem. I think those people do have to be brought back into the Democractic party if it's going to survive as a party that can win national elections. But in terms of those that just took a walk, you know, and really came out for Nixon, I'm really not interested in seeing those people brought back into the Democratic party. I don't think Connal-ly adds anything to the party. I think, as a matter of fact, he's the kind of guy that's always forcing the party to the right and into positions that really turn off more people than he brings with him. What I regard as a much more serious defection is the massive movement of people to Wallace that we saw taking place in the primaries. I don't think anybody really knows what was at the base of that movement. I suspect that race was a lot more of a factor than we were aware of during the campaign. There wasn't a lot of talk about racial prejudice and the old-fashioned racial epithet, things like that, but I think it was there. There were all kinds of ways that – of tapping that prejudice. The bussing issue was the most pronounced one, but also the attacking on the welfare program and the way the President handled that issue. I think he was orchestrating a lot of things that were designed to tap the Wallace voters, and he got most of them. Now what the Democratic party can do to bring those people back, I'm not sure. I suspect that there should have been more discussion in the campaign of the everyday frustrations and problems of working people, conditions under which they work, maybe more of an effort made to identify with them.... You need a bottle opener?

HST: Yeah, but I only have one beer. Would you like some? Do you have a glass? ... I haven't even eaten breakfast yet. I had a disturbing sort of day. I was up until eight o'clock.

McGovern: Was that when they arrested the gal in your room?

HST: Yeah. I don't want to go into it. ... I would have bet dead even coming out of the convention ... I was optimistic.

McGovern: Yeah, I was, too. Now I think the first thing they saw was the Eagleton thing, which turned a lot of people off. No matter what I'd have done, you see, we were in trouble there. And so that was an unfortunate thing. And then there were some staff squabbles that the press spotlighted, which gave the impression of confusion and disarray and lack of direction, and I think that hurt.

HST: I know it hurt. At least among the people I talked to.

McGovern: So those two factors were related and the Eagleton thing upset the morale of the staff and people were blaming each other, and there was no chance to recover from the fatigue of the campaign for the nomination – we had to go right into that Eagleton battle, and so I think that – if there was a chance, at that point, to win the election – we probably lost it right there. And then other factors began to operate, the "peace is at hand" business, the negotiations sort of blunted and killed it; actually, I think the war issue was working for the President. And then the accommodation of – at least the beginning of the accommodation of Peking and Moscow seemed to disarm a lot of moderates and liberals who might otherwise have been looking in another direction.

HST: But that was happening even before the convention.

McGovern: Yeah, it was, but it happened far enough ahead so that the impact of it began to sink in then. And I think – I don't think we got a break after Miami. I think that from then on in the breaks were with the President. I mean – and he orchestrated his campaign very cleverly. He stayed out of the public eye, and he had all the money he needed to hire people to work on direct mail and everybody got a letter tailored to their own interests and their own groove, and I think their negative TV spots were effective in painting a distorted picture of me.

HST: The spinning head commercial?

McGovern: Yeah, the spinning head commercial, knocking over the soldiers. The welfare thing. They concentrated on those themes. I suppose maybe I should have gone on television earlier with thoughtful question and answer sessions, the kind of speeches I was doing there the last few weeks. I think maybe that might have helped to offset some of the negatives we got on the Eagleton thing... Another problem: There was a feeling on the part of a lot of the staff that after Miami there wasn't the central staff direction that should have been. Whose fault that is I don't know ... I found in the field a lot of confusion about who was really in charge, pushing and pulling as to where you got things cleared, who had the final authority. That could have been handled more smoothly than it was.

When you add all of those things up, none of them, in my opinion, comes anywhere near as serious as the fact that the Republicans were caught in the middle of the night burglarizing our headquarters. They were killing people in Vietnam with bombing raids that were pointless from any military point of view. They were making secret deals to sell out the public interest for campaign contributions, you know, and routing money through Mexican banks and all kinds of things that just seemed to me to be scandalous.

HST: Do you think it would be possible to, say, discount ... if you could just wipe out the whole Eagleton thing, and assume that, say, Mondale or Nelson had taken it and there had been no real controversy, and try to remove the vice presidential thing as a factor. What do you think...

McGovern: I think it would have been very close. I really do. I think we'd have gotten off the ground fast, and I think we'd have capitalized on those early trips and that the press would have been more enthusiastic about it and they'd have been reporting the size of the crowds and the enthusiasm instead of looking at the staff problem. See, once we got into the Eagleton thing, they seemed to feel almost a constraint to report that everything was unfortunate about the campaign. The campaign, actually, was very well run, compared to others that I've seen. The fund-raising was a miracle the way that was run. The crowds were large and well advanced, and the schedules went off reasonably well day after day. I didn't think there were major gaps being made in the campaign, but there were some right at the beginning that haunted us all the way through. I think if we'd have gotten off to a better start just like a – I remember when I was at Northwestern there was a great hurdler that was supposed to win the US competition and probably win the Olympics, and he hit the first hurdle with his foot, and then he hit about the next four in a row, you know, and just petered out. After he hit that first hurdle, that's kind of what happened to us. We got off – we broke stride on that thing right after the convention, and from then on in, I think millions of people just kind of turned us off. They were skeptical and I think the mood of the country was much more conservative than we had been led to believe in the primaries. We were winning those primaries on a reform program and rather blunt outspoken statements of what we were going to do.

HST: That was the next question I was going to ask. Have you thought about what might have happened if you'd kept up that approach?

McGovern: Well, I think we did keep it up. I never did buy the line that we really changed our positions very much from the primary to the general. I can't see where there was all that much of a shift.

HST: I think it was a perceived shift. There was a definite sense that you had changed your act.

McGovern: I'm not sure how much different we really were. I think we were pretty much hitting the same issues. What did you perceive as the difference? Maybe I can answer your question better if I …

HST: Well it seemed to me, when you'd selected Eagleton it was the first step sort of backwards. If we assume that your term "new politics" had any validity, your choice of Eagleton was the point where it turned around and you decided that the time had come to make friends with the people you'd been fighting the whole time. And without questioning the wisdom of it I ...

McGovern: You mean because he'd been with Muskie and. . . .

HST: Yeah. Eagleton struck me as being a cheap hack and ... he still does, you know, he strikes me as being a useless little bastard... When I went up to St. Louis to do what I could to get hold of some of those records to try to find out more about it, I was treated like someone who'd come up to the North Pole to blackmail Santa Claus, even by your people. But I kept hearing, from what I considered pretty reliable sources, that there's more to Eagleton's mental problems than you or anybody ...

McGovern: Well, see, nobody'll ever know that for sure, 'cause those records are never gonna be available. I think the FBI has them.

HST: How the hell does the FBI have them? On what pretext did they get them?

McGovern: I don't know. But I was told by Ramsey Clark that the FBI had a very complete medical file on Eagleton, and that he [Clark] knew it at the time he was attorney general.

HST: Including the shock?

McGovern: Yeah, but I never saw the records. I was never able to get access to them.

HST: Do you think that original leak to the press, Frank and Gary came from the FBI?

McGovern: They might have been directly, they might have, they've been known to leak things like that to the press, and it may very well have been an FBI leak, but the Knight newspapers never would divulge the source.

HST: Frank knew the name of that anaesthesiologist, that woman who gave him the gas during one of the shock treatments, but he wouldn't tell me. . . .

McGovern: There were a number of journalists that were trying to get more information on it, but it's tough, very hard to do.

HST: Did you ever find out what those little blue pills were that he was eating?

McGovern? No.

HST: I think I did. It was Stelazine, not Thorazine like I heard originally. I did everything I could to get hold of the actual records, but nobody would even talk to me. I finally just got into a rage and just drove on to Colorado and said the hell with it. It seemed to me that the truth could have had a hell of an effect on the election. It struck me as being kind of tragic that he would be perceived as the good guy...

McGovern: I know, it was really unfair. What he should have done, he should have taken the responsibility for stepping down rather than putting the responsibility on me.

HST: He almost threatened not to, didn't he? As I recall, he wasn't going to do it...

McGovern: That's right. That's right.

HST: Was it true that he actually told you at one point not to worry about those pills, because the prescription was in his wife's name?

McGovern: He told me they were in his wife's name.

HST: In a sense you were running a Sixties campaign in the Seventies.

McGovern: We were running a campaign that might have won in 1968. Might have won. Might have... You know, all of this is speculating, Hunter. I don't think any of us really knows what's going on. I think there's always that pendulum action in American politics, and I expect Nixon to run into trouble in the next few years. I think there's going to be disillusionment over his war settlement. I think the economic problems are not going to get better and the problems in the great cities are going to worsen, and it may be that by 76 somebody can come along and win on a kind of platform that I was running on in '72.

HST: I don't know. It worries me and I've noticed the predominant feeling, particularly among students, seems to be one of bewilderment and despair. What the hell happened and where do we go from here and . . .

McGovern: Yeah. The letters they're sending in here, though, are – Jesus, they're encouraging. That's what kept my spirits from collapsing. The pendulum did take a big swing but it's going to come back. I really believe that.

HST: How much damage do you think Humphrey did?

McGovern: Well, he cut us up in California to the point where we probably never fully recovered from that, either.

HST: Here's a question you probably won't like, but it's something that's kind of haunted me ever since it happened: What in the hell possessed you to offer the vice presidency to Humphrey in public? Did you think he would take it or if he did take it it would really help?

McGovern: I thought it was an effort to maybe bring some of his people back on board who otherwise would go for Nixon or sit out the election.

HST: Jesus! To think that after all that stuff in California, that we might possibly end up with a McGovern/Humphrey ticket. I might have voted for Dr. Spock, if it had come to that.

McGovern: Well, it seemed to be something that had to be done to get a majority coalition, but maybe not.

HST: What the hell is the sense of trying to hold the Democratic party together, if it's really a party of expediency, something that's put together every four years? That's one of the things I've been hammering on over and over: Where do we go from here? Is this the death knell of what we dimly or vaguely perceive as the new politics?

McGovern: I don't agree with that at all. I think it was the first serious shot at it and that 28.5 million Americans said yes, and I think if George Wallace had been running to siphon off that right-wing vote from Nixon, we'd have come close to winning the election. And even without him we did almost as well as Humphrey did in terms of total percentage that we got. You know there was about four points difference between Humphrey's percentage and mine. Editor's Note

The tape of Doctor Thompson's interview with Senator McGovern ends abruptly at this point. But several weeks later, in his suite at the Seal Rock Inn, we were able to record the following conversation:

Ed: Do you agree with McGovern's analysis of why he lost the election?

HST: I'm not sure it really amounts to an analysis. I spent about two weeks in Washington talking to 15 or 20 of the key people in the campaign, and I was surprised at the lack of any kind of consensus – no hard figures or any kind of real analysis – except the kind of things that McGovern said in his interviews which were mainly speculation. ... He was saying, I think this, and that might work, and I'm sure this could happen if...

But when I asked him, for instance, who the 45% of the voters were – eligible voters who didn't vote this year – he said he had no idea. And when I asked the same question to Mankiewicz, he said I should ask Pat Caddell... I just talked to Pat on the phone yesterday, and he said it would take him a long time to get the figures together on a nationwide basis, but the one thing he could say was one of the most noticeable hard facts of this '72 presidential campaign was that, for the first time in almost anyone's memory, fewer people voted for the President in, I think it was, half the states, than had voted for the state level offices – which on the average runs about 15% higher in terms of voter turnout... no, excuse me, the presidential vote runs on an average about 15% higher.

Ed: What were Caddell's statistical explanations for McGovern's defeat? Why did he think McGovern lost?

HST: He disagreed with both McGovern and Mankiewicz, and tended to agree more with Gary Hart. There is a definite split in the McGovern camp over the explanation for the loss.

Ed: What is the Caddell/Hart position?

HST: It has to do with two words: Eagleton and competence. The Eagleton Affair was so damaging to McGovern's image – not as a humane, decent, kind, conservative man who wanted to end the war – but as a person who couldn't get those things done even though he wanted to. He was perceived, then, as a dingbat – not as a flaming radical – a lot of people seem to think that was one of the images that hurt him. But according to Pat, that "radical image" didn't really hurt him at all.... The same conclusion appeared in a Washington Post survey that David Broder and Haynes Johnson did.... They agreed that the Eagleton Affair was almost immeasurably damaging. . .. and according to Gary Hart, it was so damagsing as to be fatal. Gary understood this as early as mid-September; so did Frank – they all knew it.

Ed: McGovern too?

HST: Sure. They could all see it happening, but they couldn't figure how to deal with it – because the damage was already done, and there was no way McGovern could prove that he was not as dangerously imcompetent as the Eagleton Affair made him seem to be. They couldn't figure out... there was nothing they could do... no issue they could manufacture, no act that they could commit... or anything they could say... that would change people's minds on the question of McGovern's competence to get anything done, regardless of what he wanted to get done. In other words, there were a lot of people who liked him, liked what he said – but wouldn't vote for him, because he seemed like a bumbler.

McGovern said that "half of the Nixon vote, given the chance, would have gone even further to the right!" I suspect that's really one of the roots of the thinking of at least half of the ranking staff people in McGovern's campaign, even now.... The Hart/Caddell theory was a less ominous view of the potential of the electorate. Both Gary and Pat were convinced that McGovern could have won. That was the question I asked almost every one of. the staff people I talked to at any length.

Ed: What makes Caddell and Hart think he could have won?

HST: Primarily the provable damage that the Eagleton Affair did to the actual numbers of the McGovern constituency – the potential constituency. In July, for instance, nationally, the polls...

Ed: Caddell's polls?

HST: Caddell's, and I think there were two more, Gallup and Harris. It was a rough consensus among the polls in July that Nixon had 52% of the vote, McGovern had 37%, and 11% were undecided. In September the figures were Nixon 56%, McGovern 34%, and 10% undecided.

Ed: That indicates no change.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Politics Main Next
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.