As David Broder notes in a column in today's Washington Post, McGovern's influence is still quite strong today despite his landslide loss in 1972:
At the time, it certainly didn't look like salvation to party leaders, who saw the Democrats losing seat after seat in the McGovern debacle. But the energy and talent McGovern enlisted have proved to be the party's salvation. Without the reforms McGovern forced onto a reluctant Democratic establishment -- including guaranteed representation for women and minorities in the convention hall -- it is impossible to imagine that this year, the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination would be Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Though no one at this mostly partisan Democratic gathering noted the point, the parallel to the McGovern experience on the Republican side can be found in Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. Goldwater was a landslide loser to Lyndon Johnson, but he, too, brought a whole set of talented newcomers into national politics, among them Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Unsuccessful campaigns can have that long-term benefit for their party, but only if the losing candidate identifies himself with much larger causes. For McGovern, the causes were peace abroad and reform of the Democratic Party at home. For Goldwater, it was conservatism in its contemporary definition -- low taxes, strong defense and skepticism about government.
It was the idealism of their campaigns -- and their willingness to defy the pollsters and the political odds -- that endeared them to their young followers. And their vindication came with the successes those followers achieved.
There's a lesson in this for those running for president today. There is more than one way to measure a successful campaign.
As someone who worked in McGovern's campaign, and many other losing ones, including several of my own, I'd like to believe this.
The first campaign I ever worked on was when I was 13 years old and handed out leaflets that said "Get on the Johnson, Humphrey, Kennedy Team" to voters outside the American Legion hall on Avenue N and East 56 Street in Brooklyn, down the block where I lived: Lyndon B. Johnson for President, Hubert H. Humphrey for Vice President, Robert F. Kennedy for U.S. Senator.
Some girls my age who were Goldwater supporters were trying to harassing me, but they were so dumb they didn't realize their chant was not favorable to their candidate:
"Goldwater in '64! Hot water in '65! Bread and water in '66!"
Little did I know that on a 105-degree day in early June 1998, I'd be in Frank Lloyd Wright's monstrous Grady Gammage Auditorium on the Arizona State University campus where I'd later teach, crying my eyes out at Barry Goldwater's funeral as I sat with members of the Phoenix gay community who felt bereft at the loss of their unlikely champion.
The Arizona Human Rights Fund later named a human rights award in honor of "Mr. Conservative." It's hard to remember that Goldwater was pro-choice. Supporting gay soldiers, he famously said, "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight."
As a 20-year-old college junior attending a meeting in January 1972 to organize a McGovern campaign in our congressional district, I believed that electing McGovern would be our best chance to end the horrible, seemingly endless war that we all hated so much. But I liked everything about McGovern: not just his stands on issues, but his seemingly modest, earnest personality.
It's kind of amazing today that throughout the campaign, McGovern never played up his status as a genuine war hero or someone who had a divinity degree. He and those of us in his campaign didn't think it was about his military record or his religious beliefs. Ha.
Around the time of the 2004 Democratic convention, I copied the entries from my diary of the 1972 convention in Miami Beach and sent them to the webzine Rouse Magazine, which published them. I thought I lost them, but this morning I managed to find them, a little worse for wear, on the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine). If you're interested, you can read them here.
We worked really hard that fall, even after it became obvious that Nixon was going to be re-elected in a historic landslide. We didn't care; we believed in our candidate and our cause. I guess that sounds dogmatic, self-righteous and a little scary today.
The weekend before the election, McGovern campaigned in Coney Island, and I will never forget being in the crowd that chilly night on West 8th Street outside the mammoth Trump Village apartment complex where some of my friends lived. Despite the crush, I got up close enough to shake his hand.
On the Brooklyn College campus Tuesday morning, I remember my friend Lou Marcus, who'd voted early in Far Rockaway -- he stood in line, he said, behind my great-aunt and great-uncle -- smiling and saying, "I don't believe the polls. He's going to win."
I believed the polls. They were right. McGovern lost big.
Today's his birthday, though, and in the end I think he will go out a winner.
(Sorry for the old-man sentimentality.)
I'm not a winner. My voting residence is in Arizona's Sixth Congressional District, a safe Republican seat where there was no Democratic candidate on the ballot in November of 2004. Nor was there one when I got my absentee ballot for last November's Democratic landslide.
I'm hoping we can get a good one for 2008. So far nobody's expressed any interest in challenging the Republican incumbent, so I've registered with the Federal Election Commission as the lone Democrat running in Arizona's Sixth Congressional District. I hope the prospect of me as a candidate scares local Democrats enough to get a decent nominee, but if not, I'll be the one to lose in a landslide.
George McGovern taught me how to lose. Happy birthday, George.