1972 Election

Published: 1972
Play Audio Archive Story - UPI
Former South Dakota Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern discusses U.S. policy in Iraq during a forum held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 12, 2007. (UPI Photo/Roger L. Wollenberg)

Ed Karrins: It was an odd campaign in 1972. The President made barely half a dozen frankly political campaign trips against a man who'd campaigned for nearly two years, who'd successfully overcome apparently overwhelming odds to gain this own party's nod. George McGovern had been labeled too radical to win, but in July he accepted the Democratic Nomination

Senator George McGovern: “I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four Administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been charted behind closed doors.”

Ed Karrins: That theme, along with a promise to restore the Government to the people, resounded right up to November the 7th. With the nomination in hand, McGovern moved to round over the sharp edges of his ideological differences with those he'd defeated. With the happy warrior Hubert Humphrey, with the early frontrunner Edmund Muskie, with the challenger from the Democratic right Henry Jackson and with the others: Wilbur Mills, Shirley Chisholm, Terry Sanford and even Eugene McCarthy. Some pundit said McGovern lost his chance for election by blurring his image; but the furor which may have hurt him more developed around McGovern's first running mate.

Senator George McGovern: “A running mate of wide vision and deep compassion, Senator Tom Eagleton.”

Ed Karrins: Reports appeared; Eagleton had been given shock treatments for mental depression. McGovern backed Eagleton 1,000 percent. But then drunk-driver charges surfaced. They were never proven and later retracted, but Eagleton was finished before July was over.

Senator George McGovern: “In the joint decision that we have reached tonight, health was not a factor. But the public debate over Senator Eagleton's past medical history continues to divert attention from the great national issues that need to be discussed.”

Ed Karrins: Sergeant Shriver, a Kennedy in-law, was named to the ticket to replace the Missouri Senator. But McGovern kept on having trouble getting his opponent to discuss the issues. The President remained aloof for most of the race, fielding surrogate candidates instead: his family, Vice-President Agnew and Cabinet members. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird on McGovern's Vietnam proposals.

Melvin Laird: “It seems to me that Senator McGovern suggests sort of a reverse application of the domino theory: instead of the enemies taking over small nations one by one, he would sell out to Communism by a policy of retreat and surrender.”

Ed Karrins: The President also had John Connally, a nominal Democrat, and some of the issues raised in the California primary by Hubert Humphrey. McGovern was forced to admit he didn't have a firm price tag for his welfare and tax reform plan, the plan he dropped. Humphrey's charges that McGovern's proposed defense budget would hurt not only the nation's security, but would also throw defense workers out of their jobs by closing military bases, dogged the South Dakota Senator into the fall campaign.

Pye Chamberlain reported on an instance of the problem that caused.

Pye Chamberlain: "In San Antonio, Texas, the charges and rumors were so effective that he hastily arranged a denial session at a bar and grill called Billy's Party House across from an Air Force base."

Senator George McGovern: “I came here this morning just to do one thing, and that's to tell you that if I am elected President of the United States, Kelly Field is not going to close.”

Pye Chamberlain: "Actually, McGovern said he would bring airmen home from American bases overseas and give Kelly a more expensive role."

Senator George McGovern: “And if I get reelected in 1976, this base will still be operating with the flags flying in 1980. You can count on that.”

Pye Chamberlain: "McGovern stressed this point in local interviews, as well as his major speech in the area. Pye Chamberlain with McGovern in San Antonio."

Ed Karrins: McGovern and the Democrats had charges of the role, of course. In June, five men were arrested inside the party's Watergate headquarters, and the great espionage debate began. Later, two former White House staffers were indicted in the case; but the questions raised were to remain just questions. Court proceedings were delayed past the election.

Other issues didn't seem to move the voters to McGovern, either, and the man who'd beat the odds till then went down to a crushing defeat on November 7th. Richard Nixon rolled up a landslide personal win in the first year of a national 18-year-old vote.

President Richard M. Nixon: “I recall at the Convention that we were told by some of the enthusiasts there on our Convention that the predictions were wrong, that because of the overwhelming youth vote that was going to go against us that we had a very, very hard road to hoe if we were to win this election. Let me say, based on the results I have seen today, we have accomplished what was thought to be the impossible: we not only won a majority of the votes of America, but we won a majority of the votes of young America.”

Ed Karrins: His coattails were too short to give him a Republican Congress -- in fact, Democrats gained seats in the Senate -- but Mr. Nixon was jubilant.

President Richard M. Nixon: “I've never known a national election when I would be able to go to bed earlier than tonight.”

Ed Karrins: Mr. Nixon's rest didn't last too long. He was soon deep in the job of mapping a second term and reshuffling his Cabinet.

McGovern's concession speech told his disappointed backers that they had pushed peace closer.

Senator George McGovern: “I think, each one of us loves the title of peacemaker more than any office in the land.”

Ed Karrins: Like other questions raised by the McGovern candidacy, that one remained unanswered long after election night.

And what of George Wallace, who pulled 13% of the popular vote in the 1968 election? Well, Wallace tried for the Democratic Nomination; but the bid was interrupted as the Alabama Governor campaigned in a Maryland shopping center.

Unknown Speaker: “He had started to shake hands with the other end of line. All I could see was a bunch of people and I heard three bang-bang-bangs; I'd never heard a gun go off before in my life, and I said, 'Oh, my god, no.' And someone said, 'The Governor's been shot, God help us all.'”

Ed Karrins: Another witness saw the man who did the shooting.

Unknown Speaker: “He had Wallace campaign buttons all over him and Wallace material; in other words, to disguise any intentions whatsoever. This fellow extended the gun right into Governor Wallace's stomach and pulled the trigger.”

Ed Karrins: The gunman, Arthur Herman Bremer of Milwaukee, was captured at the scene and later tried and jailed. Governor Wallace won the Michigan and Maryland primaries the next day, but he was paralyzed for life. Despite that, by year's end Wallace was again insisting he'd be active in national politics.

Wallace's successor as the American Independent Party's candidate, former Republican Congressman John Schmitz, drew only 1% of the popular vote in the fall.