Saturday, June 25, 2016

Memo from an aging Liberal

“I guess I’m not much of a Liberal anymore.”

Reading Facebook posts of Bernie supporters and listening to them lecture the Democratic Party about what it should be and isn’t reminds me of 1972. It was the first time I was old enough to vote. I turned 20 in 1968 and the voting age was then 21. From the sidelines I watched Richard Nixon become President by less than 1% of the popular vote.

By 1972, I was completing my first term in the Wyoming legislature and running for a second. The war in Vietnam was still on. Nixon’s secret plan to end it proved a fake and 20,000 more Americans would die there after his 1968 election.

As a result, the Democratic Party thoroughly reformed itself before the 1972 race started. The nomination would thereafter be won in open primaries and caucuses, not in smoke-filled rooms. Delegates would reflect the gender and racial makeup of the nation. The ‘unit rule,’ a practice requiring that the winner of a majority of s state’s votes received all its delegates, was abolished. Rules were written requiring affirmative action in each state party to name female and minority members to their delegation.

Many believed, and many still believe that the reforms were designed to make sure an insurgent candidate would prevail over the establishment’s choice.

In 1972, the Democrats were determined that Nixon should be a one-termer. Among others, 16 in all, the Democrat’s field included moderates Sen. Edmund Muskie, Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, and the man who lost to Nixon four years earlier, Hubert Humphrey.

South Dakota Senator George McGovern was the choice of we young liberals. McGovern was the anti-establishment candidate. After the 1968 campaign during which there were few primaries and the nomination was the product of decisions made by large-city bosses in the back rooms. In the aftermath of Nixon’s tragic 1968 victory, George McGovern was named to head a Party commission to revise the way in which Democrats chose their nominee.

He was clear in his opposition to the war and in his feelings about the Party’s failure to be liberal enough on domestic issues. He rebuked big money politics and raised millions selling a special campaign button for $25 each. I still have mine sitting on the top shelf of my bookcase.

The Party regulars formed an “Anybody But McGovern” coalition. They said he was the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty and Abortion.”

Nonetheless, young people flocked to his campaign. In 1972 George McGovern was to us what Bernie Sanders is to young liberal voters today.

It was a case of “good news-bad news.” The good news? We liberals got what we wanted in a nominee. The bad news? McGovern suffered a devastating loss in November and Richard Nixon won another term, one he would not finish as his corrupt administration was exposed.

The 1972 McGovern landslide loss wasn’t the worst of it. Between then and 1992, Democrats were able only to elect one President and he, Jimmy carter, served but a single term.

Was that because of the reforms that allowed McGovern to win the Party’s nomination?  Nothing this big ever has a single cause. But the process of reforming our Party gave many a sense that Democrats were pandering populists, willing to make their point even if it meant leaving behind traditional New Deal Democrats.

Which brings me to the quote with which this blog opened.

One night after McGovern was nominated, the late Walter Urbigkit and I sat drinking beer in the long-gone Club Araby on Carey Avenue. The later it got, the more intense the argument about whether McGovern was good for the Party. Walter was a Party stalwart, an old time Hubert Humphrey liberal. I was a young McGovern liberal.

Back and forth we went like I go back and forth today with Bernie folks. As the cocktail waitress came for “last call,” Walter stood to leave saying, “I guess I’m not much of a liberal anymore.”

And so it goes, old bulls, young bulls!


  1. I was 21 in 1972 and voted for McGovern from my liberal perch in Boston. We thought McGovern would win and he did in Massachusetts and D.C. So smug and self-righteous we were, much like Bernie Sanders supporters are now. My politics match up better with Sanders than with Hillary Clinton. But I find myself wanting to win the presidency more than I want to make a point. At 21, I wanted to take a stand. At 65, I want to make sure that the right-wing crazies don't take over the White House and the Senate and the House and the Supreme Court. I believe I am correct in supporting Hillary. But it does make me feel like an old man.