“Those who fail to learn from the brutal stompings visited on them in the past are doomed to be brutally stomped in the future.”
– Raoul Duke, Christmas Eve 1972
The following disconnected excerpts from Dr. Thompson’s political book ‘Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail’ were selected more or less at random from the massive text of his book on the 1972 presidential campaign. The author assumes no final responsibility for whatever follows.
Dawn is coming up in San Francisco now: 6:09 AM. I can hear the rumble of early morning buses under my window at the Seal Rock Inn . . . out here at the far end of Geary Street: This is the end of the line, for buses and everything else, the western edge of America. From my desk I can see the dark jagged hump of “Seal Rock” looming out of the ocean in the grey morning light. About 200 seals have been barking out there most of the night. Staying in this place with the windows open is like living next to a dog pound.
One afternoon about three days ago the Editorial Enforcement Detail from the Rolling Stone office showed up at my door, with no warning, and loaded about 40 pounds of supplies into the room: two cases of Mexican beer, four quarts of gin, a dozen grapefruits, and enough speed to alter the outcome of six Super Bowls. There was also a big Selectric typewriter, two reams of paper, a face-cord of oak firewood and three tape recorders – in case the situation got so desperate that I might finally have to resort to verbal composition.
There is a comfortable kind of consistency in this kind of finish, because that’s the way all the rest of my presidential campaign coverage was written. From December ’71 to January ’73 – in airport bars, all-nite coffee shops and dreary hotel rooms all over the country – there is hardly a paragraph in this jangled saga that wasn’t produced in a last-minute, teeth-grinding frenzy. There was never enough time. Every deadline was a crisis. All around me were experienced professional journalists meeting deadlines far more frequent than mine, but I was never able to learn from their example. Reporters like Bill Greider from the Washington Post and Jim Naughton of the New York Times, for instance, had to file long, detailed, and relatively complex stories every day – while my own deadline fell every two weeks – but neither one of them ever seemed in a hurry about getting their work done, and from time to time they would try to console me about the terrible pressure I always seemed to be laboring under.
Any $100-an-hour psychiatrist could probably explain this problem to me, in 13 or 14 sessions, but I don’t have time for that. No doubt it has something to do with a deep-seated personality defect, or maybe a kink in whatever blood vessel leads into the pineal gland . . . On the other hand, it might easily be something as simple & basically perverse as whatever instinct it is that causes a jackrabbit to wait until the last possible second to dart across the road in front of a speeding car.
People who claim to know jackrabbits will tell you they are primarily motivated by Fear, Stupidity and Craziness. But I have spent enough time in jackrabbit country to know that most of them lead pretty dull lives; they are bored with their daily routines: eat, fuck, sleep, hop around a bush now & then . . .No wonder some of them drift over the line into cheap thrills once in a while; there has to be a powerful adrenaline rush in crouching by the side of a road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front wheels.
Why not? Anything that gets the adrenaline moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol . . . but too many adrenaline rushes in any given time-span has the same bad effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: After a while you start burning out the circuits . . .
Some of the scenes in this twisted saga will not make much sense to anybody except the people who were involved in them. Politics has its own language, which is often so complex that it borders on being a code, and the main trick in political journalism is learning how to translate – to make sense of the partisan bullshit that even your friends will lay on you – without crippling your access to the kind of information that allows you to keep functioning. Covering a presidential campaign is not a hell of a lot different from getting a long-term assignment to cover a newly elected district attorney who made a campaign promise to “crack down on Organized Crime.” In both cases, you find unexpected friends on both sides, and in order to protect them – and to keep them as sources of private information – you wind up knowing a lot of things you can’t print, or which you can only say without even hinting at where they came from.
This was one of the traditional barriers I tried to ignore when I moved to Washington and began covering the ’72 presidential campaign. As far as I was concerned, there was no such thing as “off the record.” The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists – in Washington or anywhere else where they meet on a day-to-day basis. When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in… especially not for “minor infractions” of rules that neither side takes seriously; and on the rare occasions when Minor infractions suddenly become Major, there is panic on both ends.
And so much for all that. The point I meant to make here – before we wandered off on that tangent about jack-rabbits – is that everything was written under savage deadline pressure in the traveling vortex of a campaign so confusing and unpredictable that not even the participants claimed to know what was happening.
I had never covered a presidential campaign before I got into this one, but I quickly got so hooked on it that I began betting on the outcome of each primary – and, by combining aggressive ignorance with a natural instinct to mock the conventional wisdom, I managed to win all but two of the 50 or 60 bets I made between February and November. My first loss came in New Hampshire, where I felt guilty for taking advantage of one of McGovern’s staffers who wanted to bet that George would get more than 35% of the vote; and I lost when he wound up with 37.5%. But from that point on, I won steadily – until November 7th, when I made the invariably fatal mistake of betting my emotions instead of my instinct.
The final result was embarrassing, but what the hell? I blew that one, along with a lot of other people who should have known better, and since I haven’t changed anything else in the mass of first-draft screeds that I wrote during the campaign, I can’t find any excuse for changing my final prediction. Any re-writing now would cheat the basic concept of the book, which – in addition to the publisher’s desperate idea that it might sell enough copies to cover the fantastic expense bills I ran up in the course of those 12 frantic months – was to lash the whole thing together and essentially record the reality of an incredibly volatile presidential campaign while it was happening.
Meanwhile, my room at the Seal Rock Inn is filling up with people who seem on the verge of hysteria at the sight of me still sitting here wasting time on a rambling introduction, with the final chapter still unwritten and the presses scheduled to start rolling in 24 hours… but unless somebody shows up pretty soon with extremely powerful speed, there might not be any Final Chapter. About four fingers of king-hell Crank would do the trick, but I am not optimistic. There is a definite scarcity of genuine, high-voltage Crank on the market these days – and according to recent statements by official spokesmen for the Justice Department in Washington, that’s solid evidence of progress in Our War Against Dangerous Drugs.
Well… thank Jesus for that. I was beginning to think we were never going to put the arm on that crowd. But the people in Washington say we’re finally making progress. And if anybody should know, it’s them. So maybe this country’s about to get back on the Right Track.
Sunday, January 28, 1973 San Francisco, Seal Rock Inn
* * *
“There’s only one real game in this country – and that’s politics. All the others are kids’ games.”
– Edward Bennet Williams, talking loosely on a flight from Washington to San Francisco, Christmas Day, 1971
It was dark when we took off from Long Beach. I was standing in the cockpit with a joint in one hand and a glass of Jack Daniel’s in the other as we boomed off the runway and up… up… up… into the cold black emptiness of a Monday night sky three miles above Southern California. “That’s San Diego, off there to the right,” said the pilot. We were leaning left now, heading east, and I hooked an elbow in the cockpit doorway to keep from falling… looking down on the beach cities – Newport, Laguna, San Clemente – and a thin, sharp white line along the coast that was either US 101 or the Pacific Ocean surf.
“Yeah, that has to be the surf line,” I muttered.
“Baja California,” the person beside me replied.
I couldn’t see who it was. There were five or six of us crowded into the cockpit, along with the three-man crew. “Here, take this,” I said, handing him the joint. “I have to get a grip on something.” I seized the back of the navigator’s chair as we kept rolling left/east, and still climbing. Behind us, in the bright belly of the United Airlines 727 Whisper Jet – or whatever they call those big three-engine buggers with the D.B. Cooper door that drops down from the tail – 50 or 60 drunken journalists were lurching around in the aisles, spilling drinks on each other and rolling spools of raw TV film towards the rear of the plane where two smiling stewardesses were strapped down by their safety belts, according to regulations.
The Fasten Seat Belts sign was still on, above every seat, along with the No Smoking sign – but the plane was full of smoke and almost nobody was sitting down. Both flight kitchens had long since been converted to bars, stocked with hundreds of those little one-and-a-half ounce flight-size whiskey bottles. We had left New York that morning, with a stop in Philadelphia, and by the time we got to Wichita the scene in the Zoo Plane was like the clubhouse at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day… and now, flying back from L.A. to Sioux Falls, it was beginning to look more and more like the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.
Ah, Jesus… here we go again: Another flashback… the doctors say there’s no cure for them; totally unpredictable, like summer lightning in the Rockies or sharks on the Jersey Shore… unreeling across your brain like a jumble of half-remembered movies all rolling at once. Yesterday I was sitting on my porch in Woody Creek, reading the sports section of the Denver Post and wondering how many points to give on the Rams-49ers game, sipping a beer and looking out on the snow-covered fields from time to time… when suddenly my head rolled back and my eyes glazed over and I felt myself sucked into an irresistible time-warp:
I was standing at the bar in the clubhouse at Churchill Downs on Derby Day with Ralph Steadman, and we were drinking Mint Juleps at a pretty good pace, watching the cream of Bluegrass Society getting drunker and drunker out in front of us… It was between races, as I recall: Ralph was sketching and I was making notes (“3:45 Derby Day, standing at clubhouse bar now, just returned from Mens Room/terrible scene/whole place full of Kentucky Colonels vomiting into urinals & drooling bile down their seersucker pants-legs/Remind Ralph to watch for ‘distinguished-looking’ men in pari-mutual lines wearing white-polished shoes with fresh vomit stains on the toes…”
Right. We were feeling very much on top of that boozy, back-slapping scene… when I suddenly glanced up from my notes & saw Frank Mankiewicz and Sonny Barger across the room, both of them wearing Hell’s Angels costumes and both holding heavy chrome chain-whips… and yes, it was clear that they’d spotted us. Barger stared, not blinking, but Mankiewicz smiled his cold lizard’s smile and they moved slowly through the drunken crowd to put themselves between us and the doorway.
Ralph was still sketching, muttering to himself in some kind of harsh Gaelic singsong & blissfully unaware of the violence about to come down. I nudged him. “Say… ah… Ralph, I think maybe you should finish your drink and get that camera strap off your neck real fast.”
“Don’t act nervous, Ralph. Just get that strap off your neck and be ready to run like a bastard when I throw this glass at the mirror.”
He stared at me, sensing trouble but not understanding. Over his shoulder I could see Frank and Sonny coming towards us, moying slowly down the length of the long whiskey-wet oaken bar, trying to seem casual as they shoved through the crowd of booze-bent Southern Gentlemen who were crowding the aisle… and when I scanned the room I saw others: Tiny, Zorro, Frenchy, Fred Dutton, Terry the Tramp, Miles Rubin, Dick Dougherty, Freddy the Torch… they had us in a bag, and I figured the only way was a sudden screaming sprint through the clubhouse and up the ramp to the Governor’s Box, directly across from the Finish Line & surrounded at all times by State Troopers.
Their reaction to a horde of thugs charging through the crowd towards the Governor’s Box would be safely predictable, I felt. They would club the bleeding shit out of anybody who looked even halfway weird, and then make mass arrests…. Many innocent people would suffer; the drunk tank of the Jefferson County Jail would be boiling that night with dozens of drink-maddened Bluebloods who got caught in the Sweep; beaten stupid with truncheons and then hauled off in paddy wagons for no reason at all…
But what the hell? This was certainly acceptable, I felt, and preferable beyond any doubt to the horror of being lashed into hamburger with chain-whips by Mankiewicz and Barger in the Clubhouse Bar…
Indeed, I have spent some time in the Jefferson County Jail, and on balance it’s not a bad place – at least not until your nerves go, but when that happens it doesn’t really matter which jail you’re in. All blood feels the same in the dark – or back in the shower cell, where the guards can’t see.
At this point Dr. Thompson suffered a series of nervous seizures in his suite at the Seal Rock Inn. It became obvious both by the bizarre quality of his first-draft work and his extremely disorganized lifestyle that the only way this tale could be completed was by means of compulsory verbal composition. Despite repeated warnings from Dr. Thompson’s personal physician we determined that for esthetic, historical, and contractual reasons The Work would have to be finished at all costs.
What follows, then, is a transcription of the conversations we had as Dr. Thompson paced about his room – at the end of an 18-foot microphone cord – describing the final days of the doomed McGovern campaign.
Ed: Well, Dr. Thompson, if you could explain these references… we just left you in the Jefferson County Jail, on a very dark and ominous note which I don’t understand… I thought you were on the plane going back to Sioux City and that you were standing…
HST: Sioux Falls.
Ed: Sioux Falls, excuse me, and that you were actually standing in the cockpit with a joint in one hand and a glass of Jack Daniel’s in the other. Were the pilots smoking dope? What was happening on this plane?… why was it called the Zoo Plane?
HST: Well, I would have preferred to write about this, but under the circumstances, I’ll try to explain. There were two planes in the last months of the McGovern campaign. One was the Dakota Queen, actually it was the Dakota Queen II – like “junior” – the Dakota Queen Second. McGovern’s bomber in World War II was the original Dakota Queen.
In the rear was a bar and a sort of mini press room where there were about five typewriters, a few phones – you could call from the plane to headquarters in Washington – you could call anywhere from the plane. But the atmosphere on the Dakota Queen was very… ah… very… reserved is the word.
Ed: The atmosphere was reserved? On the day before the election?
HST: Only on the Dakota Queen… the atmosphere on the Zoo Plane became crazier and crazier as the atmosphere on the Dakota Queen became more reserved and more somber. The kinkier members of the press tended to drift onto the Zoo Plane. The atmosphere was more comfortable. There were tremendous amounts of cocaine, for instance.
Ed: I’d like to interrupt you now to ask what was the prevailing mood of the McGovern staff at this point…flying back to Sioux Falls… a day before the election, November 6th?
HST: The mood of the McGovern staff on the Dakota Queen was very, very quiet. They had known for a long time what was going to happen. McGovern admitted knowing for at least a week.
Ed: McGovern admitted knowing for a week before the election?
HST: Yeah. I talked to him earlier that day on the way from Wichita to Long Beach and I could tell… he loosened up so much that it was clear something happened in his head… This was shortly after he told a heckler in I think it was… Grand Rapids, “Kiss my ass.” He did it with very… considerable elan… He moved up right next to this guy and he said: “I have a secret for you – kiss my ass.” Most of the press people missed it. He put his arm around him and whispered sort of quietly in his ear. McGovern didn’t know anyone had heard him. Only two other people heard him – one was a Secret Service man, another was Saul Kohler, of the New house papers. McGovern thought he was saying it in total privacy. But it got out.
But by that time he didn’t care… He was laughing about it, and when I asked him about it on the Dakota Queen, he sort of smiled and said… “Well, he was one of these repulsive people, one of the types you just want to get your hands on… McGovern was so loose it was kind of startling. He got very relaxed once he realized what was going to happen. Later he said that he’d known for at least a week, and Gary Hart later said he had known for a month.
Ed: Gary Hart later admitted he had known McGovern would lose for a month before the election?
HST: He told me when I stopped in Denver on the way to the Super Bowl that he’d sensed it as early as September, but when I asked him when he knew, he thought for a minute and then said, “Well, I guess… it was around October 1st…” According to Pat Caddell’s polls they had known – when I say “they,” I mean the McGovern top command – had known what kind of damage the Eagleton thing had done and how terminal it was ever since September. Pat said they spent a month just wringing their hands and tearing their hair trying to figure out how to overcome the Eagleton disaster.
Ed: By “the Eagleton disaster,” do you mean the question of McGovern’s competence in handling the affair?
HST: His whole image of being a… first a maverick, anti-politician and then suddenly becoming an expedient, pragmatic hack… kind of a… Well, he began talking like a used car salesman, sort of out of both sides of his mouth, in the eyes of the public, and he was no longer… either a maverick or an anti-politician… he was… he was no better than Hubert Humphrey and that’s not a personal judgment, that’s how he was perceived… and that’s an interesting word. “Perceive” is the word that became in the ’72 campaign what “charisma” was for the 1960, ’64 and even the ’68 campaigns. “Perceive” is the new key word.
Ed: What does “perceive” mean?
HST: When you say perceive you imply the difference between what the candidate is and the way the public or the voters see him.
Ed: What was the difference between the perception and the reality on the Eagleton Affair?
HST: The Eagleton Affair was the first serious crack in McGovern’s image as the anti-politician. He dumped Eagleton for reasons that still aren’t… that he still refuses to talk about. Eagleton’s mental state was much worse than was ever explained publicly. How much worse, it’s hard to say right now, but that’s something I’ll have to work on…
In any case there was no hope of keeping Eagleton on the ticket.
The Eagleton thing is worth looking at for a second in terms of the difference between perception and reality. McGovern was perceived as a cold-hearted, political pragmatist who dumped this poor, neurotic, good guy from Missouri because he thought people wouldn’t vote for him because they were afraid that shock treatments in the past might have some kind of lingering effect on his mind. Whereas, in fact, despite denials of the McGovern staff in the last days of the campaign – when I was one of the five or six reporters who were pushing very aggressively to find out more about Eagleton and the real nature of his mental state – I spent about ten days in late September, early October, in St. Louis trying to dig up Eagleton’s medical record out of the Barnes Hospital, or actually the Rennard Hospital in the Washington University Medical Center. Despite this, Mankiewicz denied knowing anything about it, because he’d promised to protect the person who told him about it in the first place…
I knew he was lying because I had all the facts from other people in the campaign whose names I couldn’t use. I couldn’t quote them, because I had promised I wouldn’t say where I got the information. About three weeks after the election, though, Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post wrote a long series on the Eagleton Affair, and here’s the way he explains how Mankiewicz reacted to the initial shock of this information about Eagleton… He’s talking about the fact that two reporters from the Knight newspapers got hold of the information about the same time as Gary and Frank did. The same person who called them, called John Knight in Detroit, and two reporters from the Detroit Free Press – or the Washington bureau of Knight newspapers – flew out to Sioux Falls with a long memo on the Eagleton situation. They hadn’t broken the story yet, but they were about to. They were trying to be… first they were trying to be fair with McGovern and, second, they were trying to use what they had to get more – which is a normal journalistic kind of procedure.
Ed: A normal what kind of procedure?
HST: Journalistic. If you have half a story and you don’t know the rest, you use what you have to pry the rest out of someone.
HST: Here’s what Mankiewicz told Haynes Johnson after the election was over, when it no longer mattered: “As Mankiewicz says, they had come up with a very incoherent and largely unpublishable memo full of rumors and unsubstantiated material – but a memo that was clearly on the right track.” The memo contained such things as drinking reports and reports that Eagleton had been hospitalized and given electro-shock treatments for psychiatric problems. “But the real crusher,” Mankiewicz said, “was a passage in the memo that had quotations around it as if it had been taken from a hospital record. It said that Tom Eagleton had been treated with electro-shock therapy at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis for, and this was the part that was quoted, ‘severe manic-depressive psychosis with suicidal tendencies.’ And that scared me.”
That was Mankiewicz talking, and here’s the explanation he gave for why he lied to all the reporters, including me, who had asked him about this… Because I knew… I had that exact quote from several people on the McGovern staff, who wanted to release it. They thought that if people knew the truth about the Eagleton situation – that there was no way he could possibly be kept on the ticket – that the “perception” of McGovern’s behavior with Eagleton might be drastically altered. Eagleton would no longer be the wronged good guy, but what he actually was – an opportunistic liar.
Ed: An opportunistic liar.
HST: With a history of very serious mental disorders and no reason for anyone to believe they wouldn’t recur. Here’s what Mankiewicz… here’s the reason Mankiewicz gives for not explaining this to the press at the time. This is Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post again: “Mankiewicz says ‘he stalled furiously’ with the newspaper representatives, appealed to their patriotism and promised them tangible news breaks. Both McGovern and Eagleton would have complete physicals later at Walter Reed Hospital, and challenge the other candidates to do the same and release the medical results. When that happened, he went on, he would try to arrange either an exclusive interview with Eagleton or give them a news cycle break on the Eagleton medical story.”
Ed: What’s a news cycle break?
HST: I don’t know. That’s the kind of language Mankiewicz used all through the campaign when he got confused and started treading water.
At that point Mankiewicz was afraid to say anything heavy to the press, and rightly so, I think. Look at what happened to Jack Anderson when he went on the air… on the Mutual Radio Network with a story of Eagleton’s drunk driving arrests. Then he couldn’t prove it. He couldn’t get the records. He was told by True Davis, who had run against Eagleton in the Democratic primary for senator in 1968 in Missouri, that the records were in a box in an office in St. Louis, and Davis promised Anderson that he would get them immediately. So Anderson had every reason to believe that he would have the actual drunk driving records or xeroxes of them in his hands by the time he broke the story. After Anderson had broken the story both on the radio and in his column… his syndicated column… he got desperate for the records because he knew he was going to be challenged. At that point True Davis was the president of a bank owned by the United Mine Workers in Washington.
Ed: Tony Boyle’s union? Hubert Humphrey’s friend?
HST: Right. Davis told Jack Anderson that unfortunately the box containing the records pertaining to Eagleton’s drunk driving arrests had disappeared from this room… some storage place in St. Louis… and contrary to what he told Anderson earlier, he couldn’t produce them. So Anderson was left with a story that almost every journalist in Washington still believes to be true.
Ed: How does this get back to what we were talking about before?
HST: I wanted to tell you why Mankiewicz was afraid to break the… or help anyone else break the story on Eagleton’s mental history. Jack Anderson got burned so badly on that, and was so embarrassed publicly that it appeared – for reasons he could never explain – that he was just taking a cheap shot at Eagleton, and Eagleton came off looking better than he had before Anderson had started. So Mankiewicz and Hart, along with McGovern… those were the only people who knew the details about Eagleton’s mental disorders… They decided that they couldn’t break the story. They couldn’t help anyone else investigate Eagleton any further than Eagleton himself wanted to be investigated, or it would appear that the McGovern staff was deliberately leaking false information on Eagleton in order to make him look bad which would then in turn make McGovern look good.
Ed: Which what? Which in turn would make McGovern look good?
HST: Yeah, if Eagleton had turned out… if the records had been available… See, Eagleton never showed McGovern his medical records. He kept saying he would bring them to South Dakota.
Ed: Did McGovern keep asking him?
HST: Oh, yes. They kept… they couldn’t believe it when he didn’t show up with them in South Dakota.
Ed: He promised that he was going to bring them?
HST: He promised it for about ten days and finally he said that the psychiatrists wouldn’t release them, the Mayo Clinic wouldn’t release them, the Barnes Hospital wouldn’t release them.
Ed: Why wouldn’t the hospital release records to a patient?
HST: Well, the answer is… the question is the answer.
Ed: So the public perceived McGovern to be the bad guy, when in fact it was really Eagleton. And McGovern never recovered from that change in his image.
HST: No, to the extent that it damaged him… Pat Caddell has very convincing figures on that. Their polling from July, September to November shows that the Eagleton Affair had hurt McGovern so badly that the fact is the figures went off the board. It was totally impossible to recover from that… the damage was so great particularly among the younger voters where McGovern’s potential strength lay.
Ed: Why were there so many defections over Eagleton among McGovern’s younger supporters?
HST: They were the people who would be more inclined to be sympathetic – because they were more sophisticated – to a person who had been treated for nervous tension, even if he had gone to the extent of having electro-shock treatments. They were not the kind of people who would say, “Oh, that nut – get rid of him.” They were also the same kind of people who had earlier seen McGovern as an anti-politician… or the “white knight,” as some people called him… The honest man… Not the kind of person who would say one thing and do another. And at that point with Eagleton, as he said, he was behind him 1000%. Then he turned around and asked him to get off the ticket.
Ed: It was at that point McGovern said “1000%”?
HST: One of the weird unanswered questions is whether McGovern actually said1000% to anyone but Eagleton.
Ed: Well, who reported that McGovern said, “I was behind you 1000%”?
HST: Eagleton reported it.
Ed: Eagleton reported it, but McGovern never denied it…
HST: Just as soon as the Eagleton story broke Mankiewicz had said “Let’s get rid of this guy.”
Ed: Frank said that? “Let’s get rid of this guy”? Right away?
HST: Yeah: In the Haynes Johnson story Mankiewicz said that he was speaking both for himself and Gary Hart when he went to McGovern right after they found out about the information on Eagleton, the initial information, the stuff that was published. He said, “I remember that night I called him ‘George,’ which I vowed I would not do during the campaign. I indicated I was speaking for Gary and myself.” Mankiewicz told McGovern, “Let’s get rid of this guy.”
Ed: That was the first time he had called Senator McGovern George? That seems unusual.
HST: Yeah, that puzzled me all throughout the campaign, because I remember when I first met McGovern over at Tom Braden’s house back in December… He came over for dinner, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to call him George… like I called Tom Braden, columnist from the Washington Post, “Tom,” and… people would call Robert Kennedy “Bobby.” One of the… sort of… consistent indicators of the tone of the McGovern campaign and McGovern’s personality was the fact that nobody in the campaign, including Mankiewicz, who was the closest person to him in the campaign, ever called him anything but “The Senator” or addressed him as “Senator,” which struck me as very peculiar. At first I called him George, but then I began to feel weird, because I was the only person who called him that, except my wife… but I never heard anyone else call him “George.”
Ed: We seem to be getting off the track. We were discussing the difference between “perception” and “reality” in the handling of the Eagleton Affair. The public perceived Eagleton to be the good guy…
HST: Excuse me, but I think I see a mescaline dealer down there in the street.
Ed: No… pull the curtains, pull the curtains.
HST: I should call my attorney.
Ed: Maybe we should get your personal physician back here. You’re acting very tense, very nervous… we can’t even think about mescaline dealers right now. We’re on a crisis schedule… Do you want to say anything further about the way McGovern handled the Eagleton problem?
HST: I think he handled it very badly. There were two people in the campaign… in the sort of top echelon, who made the strongest possible case with George for unloading Eagleton.
Ed: Who argued for dumping Eagleton?
HST: Well… Eleanor McGovern was the first one. But that’s not what I mean here, because she wanted to dump him in Miami, about two minutes after she heard he’d been selected to be on the ticket. She was the only person in Miami who was openly, out-front opposed to Eagleton right from the start – except me, of course, but people like Hart and Mankiewicz never took my opinions very seriously anyway… and in Miami I wasn’t down on Eagleton because I knew any foul secrets about him; neither did Eleanor… But when I was talking to Stearns and Bill Dougherty [McGovern adviser, William Dougherty, Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota] on the beach that Saturday afternoon after the convention, I told him Eagleton looked like the first big mistake they’d made, up to then – because he seemed out of place in that campaign; he was a hack, just another one of these cheap hustlers – and Dougherty said it was kind of funny to hear me saying almost exactly the same things Eleanor had been saying about Eagleton…
Ed: Bill Dougherty said that? In Miami?
HST: Yeah, but I didn’t print it. Stearns and I were out on the beach drinking beer when Bill saw us… He just came over and sat down, without realizing I had my tape recorder going, so I figured it wasn’t fair to use some of the brutally frank things he said that day… I edited them out of the tape transcription.
Ed: So the public’s perception of McGovern was distorted – but you think that McGovern essentially was at the root of that distortion.
HST: I think his indecisiveness was at the root of that distortion. At every crisis in the campaign McGovern appeared to be – was perceived to be – and, in fact, was indecisive… for unnatural periods of time.
Ed: Unnatural periods of time?
HST: Well, unsettling periods of time. The selection of a replacement for Eagleton was one of the most heinous botches in the history of politics. Here he was calling Humphrey and Muskie and offering it to them publicly – and then being turned down … He had also offered it to Humphrey at the convention… I didn’t realize that until later.
Ed: One last question about this trip from Long Beach to Sioux Falls: Why was this second plane called the Zoo Plane and how widespread was the use of dangerous narcotics in the campaign and on this particular trip?
HST: Well, let’s first deal with the fact that “drugs” are not necessarily narcotics. We want to get that clear in our minds. The narcotic is one type of drug and…
Ed: Excuse me, I…
HST: Coffee is a drug… yes, there were drugs being used… booze is a drug… many drugs…. They’re all around us these days.
Ed: I understand you’re an expert…
HST: Well… I’ve been studying drugs for years.
Ed: A student of pharmacology.
HST: I make a point of knowing what I’m putting into myself. Yes…. The Zoo Plane: I’m not sure who named it that, but the name derived from the nature of the behavior of the people on it… It was very much like a human zoo, and I recall particularly that last flight from Long Beach to Sioux Falls… I remember Tim Crouse’s description of how the older and straighter press people must have felt when they saw five or six freaks reeling around in the cockpit on takeoff and landing, passing joints around. As Tim said, you can imagine how these guys felt. They had heard all these terrible things, they’d read stories about how people in dark corners gathered to pass drugs around, and they always thought that it happened in urine-soaked doorways around Times Square. But all of a sudden here we were covering a presidential campaign and there were joints being passed up and down the aisle: weird people in the cockpit… drug addicts… lunatics… crowding into the cockpit just to get high and wired on the lights. The cockpit had millions of lights all around it: green lights… red lights… all kinds of blinking things – a wonderful place to be. That surge of power in a jet… you don’t get any real sense of it back in the passenger seats, but the feeling… up in front is like riding God’s own motorcycle. You can feel that incredible… at takeoff… that incredible surge of power behind you… in the 727 the engines are way back in the back and you feel like you’re just being lifted off the ground by some kind of hellish force. And the climb angle is something like 40 or 50 degrees… and then all these green lights blinking and these dials going and things buzzing and humming… and looking down seeing the lights here and there… and cities passing and mountain ranges… a wonderful way to go. I think I’m going to have to get a flying license very soon, and maybe one of those Lear jets. Jesus – the possibilities! It beats motorcycles all to hell.
Ed: It’s the third dimension. Motorcycles are only two dimensional.
HST: Yeah, right. I think I’d like to get up there at night, all alone – with a head full of mescaline, just roll around in the sky like a big Condor…
* * *
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.
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?
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.
HST: On paper it indicates no change, but what it doesn’t show is … Nixon lost 9% of, his vote in that period of time … 9 out of the original 52. He gained 15% from elsewhere but he lost 9% of his first group. Meanwhile McGovern lost 13 points of his vote, his original 37%… But the McGovern loss was apparently, according to the figures, almost entirely due to the Eagleton Affair, whereas the Nixon loss would have happened anyway, because they were mainly people who in July had said that they were Democrats – Humphrey Democrats – who refused to vote for McGovern, but as the election drew closer they began to filter back. So Nixon’s 9% loss was inevitable, more or less. What Nixon did was pick up a tremendous amount of mainly young, not necessarily liberal Democrats – but young, sort of educated, relatively sophisticated voters who would have stayed with McGovern, according to the polls… according to the answers they gave the poll-takers, if it had not been for the Eagleton disaster. That’s when his image as a different kind of politician, an anti-politician, just cracked and shattered and there was no way to put it back together. According to the Hart/Caddell theory, if that hadn’t happened, the race would have been at least very close….
Ed: In other words, were it not for the Eagleton Affair, Nixon was actually steadily losing, and McGovern was slowly but surely picking up the Humphrey voters … so the deciding factor, according to Caddell’s statistics, was the massive defection from McGovern to Nixon resulting from the Eagleton Affair. I just wanted to clarify this.
HST: Yes, that’s it.
Ed: Now the question is: Now that we’ve established these two schools of thought, to which do you subscribe or do you have your own theory?
HST: Well … I’m not sure, but I doubt that McGovern himself could have won with any kind of campaign, even without the Eagleton incident.
HST: Well, that doesn’t mean another candidate with the same views as McGovern might not have been able to win … or even a candidate with views more radical than McGovern’s. I think that element of indecisiveness, and the willingness – as he said in his interview – to do anything possible to forge a “winning coalition” didn’t do him any good at all. … I think it hurt him. It hurt him drastically with the so-called “youth vote,” for instance. And I think it hurt him with the Wallace-type Democrats that I talked to up in Serb Hall in Milwaukee that day; who disagreed with him, but perceived him – that word again – as a straight, honest, different type of politician, a person who would actually do what he said, make some real changes.
Ed: Do you think Eagleton was the chief reason for them changing their minds? Those Wallace people?
HST: No – not the Wallace people. But there was a whole series of things that hurt him all across the board: that trip to the LBJ Ranch, the sucking up to Mayor Daley, the endorsement of Ed Hanrahan, state’s attorney in Chicago – who was indicted for the murder of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader…
Ed: McGovern endorsed Hanrahan?
HST: Yeah. He also endorsed Louise Day Hicks in Boston.
Ed: Oh, no!
HST: The racist woman, who was running for Congress…
Ed: Did she win?
HST: No, I think she lost. And Hanrahan lost, despite the McGovern endorsement… all that hurt McGovern and also having his own so-called campaign director, Larry O’Brien, denounce him just before Labor Day. O’Brien denounced the whole McGovern campaign as a can of worms, a rolling ball of madness… incompetence, a bunch of ego freaks running around in circles with nobody in charge. That kind of thing couldn’t possibly have helped.
Ed: O’Brien said all that?
HST: Yeah. He went totally around the bend.
Ed: Did you vote for McGovern?
HST: Yeah, I did.
HST: It was essentially an anti-Nixon vote. I don’t think McGovern would have been a bad President. He’s a better senator. But I don’t think that the kind of standard-brand Democrat that he came to be – or that he actually was all along, and finally came out and admitted he was toward the end, more by his actions than by what he said – I’m not sure that kind of person is ever going to win a presidential campaign again. What was once the natural kind of constituency for that kind of person – the Stevenson constituency, the traditional liberal – has lost faith, I think, in everything that Liberalism was supposed to stand for. Liberalism itself has failed, and for a pretty good reason. It has been too often compromised by the people who represented it. And the fact is people like Nixon – candidates like Nixon – have a running start which gives them a tremendous advantage.
My own theory, which sounds like madness, is that McGovern would have been better off running against Nixon with the same kind of neo-“radical” campaign he ran in the primaries. Not radical in the left/right sense, but radical in a sense that he was coming on with … a new … a different type of politician … a person who actually would grab the system by the ears and shake it. And meant what he said. Hell, he certainly couldn’t have done any worse. It’s almost impossible to lose by more than 23% … And I think that conceivably this country is ready for a kind of presidential candidate who is genuinely radical, someone who might call for the confiscation of all inherited wealth, for instance, or a 100% excess-profits tax… For example, Wallace, if he’d understood how much potential strength he had, and if he hadn’t been shot, could have gone to the Democratic Convention with a nasty bloc of votes – enough to probably dominate the convention, not to win the nomination, but enough to give him veto power on the candidate. Wallace did so much better in the primaries than even he expected, but by the time he realized what was happening, it was too late for him to file delegate slates in the states where he was running…
Ed: And you think that this is the kind of energy which will bring forward a new candidate in ’76 who could win?
HST: Not necessarily. There’s all kinds of weird energy out there. The Youth Vote, for instance – the first-time voters, the people between 18 and 24 – could have altered the outcome drastically in states like California, Illinois, New York, Michigan, Missouri… McGovern could have won those states with a big turnout among first-time voters – not to mention the huge dropout vote, the people between 25 and 40 who didn’t vote at all.
Ed: Caddell’s figures showed this?
HST: Right. There were states… where he compared Humphrey’s margin or his loss – whatever the figures were in ’68 – to the number of new voters coming into the electorate this time around… and there were an incredible number of states where Pat’s figures showed that even if McGovern could get at least half of them, he’d carry something like 12 states with this Youth Vote.
Ed: You have said already that you doubt McGovern could have won. What do you think is going to happen in ’76?
HST: McGovern could have won – but it was unlikely, given the nature of his organization. For one thing, it was technically oriented… or at least the best part of it was technically oriented. The best people in the campaign were technicians: At the staff command level there was almost constant confusion, and McGovern’s indecisiveness compounded that confusion and left the technicians often wandering around in circles wondering what the hell to do … He had people who could do the work and could turn the vote out, but they weren’t always sure what he was doing. The campaign plane would fly into a state and the staffers would have conflicting things set up for him to do. The people on the plane – Mankiewicz, Dutton, Dick Dougherty, the press secretary – were running a different campaign than the one on the charts in the Washington headquarters, or in most of the state offices…
Ed: You think he failed to provide his staff with the necessary direction or leadership?
HST: Yeah, I think you either have to have a very strong decisive person at the top or else a really brilliant staff command. And he didn’t have either one, actually. But he did have the troops in the field…
Ed: Is there a possibility for marshaling those troops again in ’76?
HST: Yeah, definitely, but I doubt if a candidate like McGovern can marshal them again. The McGovern/McCarthy type candidacies have disappointed too many people, because of a disillusionment with the candidates themselves.
Ed: Are you considering running for office yourself?
HST: Yeah, I was thinking of running for the senate in Colorado.
Ed: The senate in Colorado?
HST: Yeah – the US Senate from Colorado. But I might end up running against Gary Hart in the primary. That would be interesting … I might not run as a Democrat, or I might not run at all. It’s a grueling, rotten ordeal to go through.
Ed: If you were to run for senate in Colorado what kind of a campaign would you conduct? Would you run as a Democrat?
HST: Only if it proved to be absolutely impossible to win as a third party candidate. I’d have to check and see. I don’t see any point in running for anything any more unless I was serious about winning.
Ed: And what would your platform be?
HST: I haven’t thought about it. But it would naturally have to involve a drastic change of some kind… Maybe just an atavistic endeavor, but there’s no point in getting into politics at all unless you plan to lash things around.
Ed: Lash things around?
HST: That’s one of the secrets. The other … well, it depends on who you’re running against. But because of the Eagleton thing, Nixon didn’t really have to run at all. Any candidate who’d offered a real possibility of an alternative to Nixon – someone with a different concept of the presidency – could have challenged him and come very close to beating him. That was the prevailing theory among the Democrats all along in the primaries, which is why there were so many people getting into it early… Nixon was so vulnerable, he was such a wretched President, that almost any Democrat could beat him.
Ed: If you were to run for senate in Colorado and win, would you then consider running for the presidency itself?
HST: Yeah, I’d do almost anything after that, even run for President – although I wouldn’t really want to be President. As a matter of fact, early on in the ’72 campaign, I remember telling John Lindsay that the time had come to abolish the whole concept of the presidency as it exists now, and get a sort of city manager-type President…. We’ve come to the point where every four years this national fever rises up – this hunger for the Saviour, the White Knight, the Man on Horseback – and whoever wins becomes so immensely powerful, like Nixon is now, that when you vote for President today you’re talking about giving a man dictatorial power for four years. I think it might be better to have the President sort of like the King of England – or the Queen – and have the real business of the presidency conducted by … a city manager-type, a Prime Minister, somebody who’s directly answerable to Congress, rather than a person who moves all his friends into the White House and does whatever he wants for four years. The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It’s come to the point where you almost can’t run unless you can cause people to salivate and whip on each other with big sticks. You almost have to be a rock star to generate the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.
Ed: The other day I reread the end of Hell’s Angels, one of my favorite books… and you talked about The Edge… you know… that moment that I’ve experienced … I was a … minor league bike-rider in my youth… that moment of being on the edge… and you talk about that a lot throughout your coverage this past year. You said the candidates… the staff, and the press… were all on The Edge … is politics the greatest Edge you’ve discovered? Is that the sharpest Edge that you’ve personally experienced and would like to continue to experience? Politics?
HST: That depends on what kind of campaign it is. I couldn’t think of anything… it’d be hard to imagine anything stranger or weirder or higher or closer to that Edge you’re talking about than a flat-out Freak Power campaign for President of the United States. The energy you could put behind that… the frenzy you’d stir up would probably get you killed, but Jesus Christ, it would be something that nobody’d ever forget.
Ed: So the Edge we’re talking about would be really the greatest if one were the candidate himself?
HST: Yeah, but then the punishment would be the greatest too… it’s much more fun to run a political campaign than it is to be the candidate.
Ed: How about writing about it?
HST: That actually isn’t much fun, writing about it … the High is in the participation, and particularly if you identify with one candidate … I don’t think that I could do it if I didn’t care who won. It’s the difference between watching a football game between two teams you don’t care about, and watching a game where you have some kind of personal identity with one of the teams, if only a huge bet. You’d be surprised how fast the adrenaline comes up, when you stand to lose $1000 every time the ball goes up in the air. That’s why the Aspen Freak Power campaign developed all that fantastic voltage. Any kind of political campaign that taps the kind of energy that nothing else can reach… There are a lot of people just walking around bored stupid. . . .
Ed: Any kind of campaign that taps that energy would . . .
HST: Would generate a tremendous high for … everybody involved in it.
Ed: And would ultimately for you be another paramount experience – out there on the Edge?
HST: Oh, absolutely. But you know you’d be killed, of course, and that would add to it considerably – never knowing when the bullet was coming.
This story is from the July 5th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.