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Death of a Salesman

Those who do watch politics want to go behind the public speeches and the platform, with good reason. We should have known more about Mitchell and Haldeman in 1968, not less. Eisenhower’s regime was partly misunderstood in the 1950s because it was not seen as the delayed victory of Thomas Dewey’s people. A knowledgeable handicapper wants to know about Secretariat’s handlers, or Muhammed Ali’s. To understand the choice of Eagleton, you have to know about McGovern’s blind belief that Ted Kennedy would bail him out, the ignorance of “regulars” in McGovern’s entourage, and the way Teddy vetoed Kevin White at the last minute. These are not unimportant “backstairs” bits of gossip.

Perry is commendable in his modesty, but places the wrong emphasis throughout: “We nitpicked Lindsay to death.” There was nothing but nits to pick. Jerry Bruno, with his dream of sex on the tube, thought Lindsay would be the reporters’ darling, and tickle all their favorite responses. But the press would rather deal with politicians than with other reporters—even Daley or Wallace commands their grudging respect when he knows things they do not know. Any TV technician knows as much about timing “film events” as Lindsay does. Reporters tend to work on Groucho’s Law, rephrased this way: Anyone who wants my advice about how to be President doesn’t deserve to be.

I have been indulging a bad habit, so far—talking about “the press” and “reporters” as if they were a homogeneous entity. Oddly enough, Timothy Crouse furthered that conception in a Rolling Stone article he wrote during the campaign. It gave the impression of hacks moving in a herd. But his book, which is by way of a long palinode, does more to reveal the rivalry, competition, different styles used in the press than anything I have seen. He does fascinating brief biographies of the chief political reporters. Nothing, as he illustrates, could be more different than the background, aims, and judgment of Johnny Apple and David Broder. He shows how reporters try to do in each other, rather than the candidates—indeed, the most obvious bias that arises is a tendency to blow up the importance of whatever they are covering, just to get their stuff printed by the editor. He reveals how hard it was for those who sympathized with McGovern to file their tough assessments of what was happening to him.

Perry and Crouse both assume what may come as a surprise to the public—that a man like Jack Germond, writing for an obscure string of papers, has more influence among capital reporters than any other journalist. Germond speaks for the profession, with his stress on doing the leg work, not fudging or cheating, keeping it competitive and keeping it clean. There are limits on the competition, limits of fair play. Those who violate them are quietly ostracized. The limits have nothing to do with ideology, as David Shoumacher found out during the campaign.

Journalists will lose respect for Teddy White when he becomes a hack, buying special privilege by toadying. They will grant respect to Hunter Thompson when he shows that, under all that freaky talk, he does his homework. Patrick Buchanan calls these men responsible to no one but themselves. He is right, but his accent is off. They are responsible to one another. They worry about standards and accuracy. They often bend over backward to meet criticism, as Perry’s book demonstrates. They never really please any candidate, as Campaign ‘72 demonstrates. But, as Crouse’s book shows, they live in one of the last trades where intense competition is contained within camaraderie.

III

White, as we might expect, perpetuates the myth of 1972 as the campaign in which the Democrats’ nominating procedure was more “participatory” than ever, and its convention more “open” than ever. He believes that Larry O’Brien’s rulings were exemplary, that Eagleton played fair, that McGovern only erred by having a liberal “theology” instead of a liberal politics. But, in fact, no nomination was ever brought about by the combination of so many freaky accidents and unforeseen turnings. Campaign ‘72 makes it clear that no one guessed ahead of time that the reforms in delegate selection would be so effective or widespread.

Hart confirms what others in McGovern’s camp have indicated—that even McGovern did not estimate their effect very accurately. It was fashionable, once he came from nowhere, to say he had planned it that way, when he was on the reform commission. But his belief in himself had nothing to do with calculation. Hart and Weil detail, in their books, how hard it was to convince McGovern that his great showing in New Hampshire was a victory. He expected to win tout court. He thought he would win every primary he entered, and was puzzled when he failed to. He did not have a liberal theology. He had a McGovern theology. His refusal to consider an alternative to Senator Kennedy as vice president came from his one calculation (that he needed him) placed in the setting of his mystical certitudes (that anything he needed he would get).

People say that White has focused too much attention on the mechanics of party choice and electoral maneuvering. But even the pros did not know enough about the new set-up in 1972. If they had, Muskie would not have ignored the delegate selection process to concentrate on total exposure in the primaries. Wallace would have kept open the possibility to put delegates in places like California. Humphrey would have realized labor could not come in strong for him at the end. If Wallace had not been shot, he might have reached the convention with a plurality of votes cast in primaries (he led in this category going into California). If that had happened, a stop-Wallace coalition would have formed around one of the “center” men—Muskie, perhaps, or Humphrey. As it was, Muskie helped kill off Humphrey by playing for a final leap in Miami.

Then we come to the “open” convention. The McGovern forces, after crusading against winner-take-all, refused to let the California outcome be overthrown—one must play by the rules in force, they said. But a convention is master of its own procedure, and every reform (e.g., of Southern delegates excluding blacks) has overthrown a “game” after it occurred. The best commentary on the idea that Miami delegates were “representative” is Mike Royko’s satire on the skewed makeup of the Illinois “reform” slate. The best commentary on its openness is a long interview taped by Hunter Thompson, on the morning after McGovern’s choice. He caught Rick Stearns and Bill Dougherty in the euphoria of their successful coup. On the South Carolina challenge, where they shaved votes against the women’s cause to keep troops available for the California showdown, Stearns voiced the new politics this way: “When it really came down to it, they had less guts than we had. We were willing to sell out the women, but they weren’t willing to sell out a Southern Governor.” Why, then, pretend they were supporting the challenge? “We sure didn’t want to get the women angry for us on the California challenge.” And Dougherty adds: “The women didn’t catch on, though. They still haven’t. It’s so complicated that they haven’t figured it out.”

Stearns and Dougherty make no bones over the fact that the challenge to Daley was not valid. As Dougherty puts it, “Those guys, the [Jesse] Jackson delegation, weren’t exactly legally seated, if you really want to be honest about it.” But they backed the slate as part of a deal. So much for new politics. As for the convention’s openness, Stearns lets us know that, at the crucial moment of the convention, the mass of delegates were manipulated from his trailer. In answer to Thompson’s question, how many people knew what was going on, he said: “There were perhaps 250 people on the floor who had a good idea of what was going on. There were another 50 or 60 who had a pretty complete idea of what was going on. And then there were about 20 [out of 3,000 delegates] who knew what was going on.” It is interesting that the most damaging material on the McGovern coup was printed by the reporter who openly sided with him.

IV

Late in the campaign, I came across Eagleton’s press secretary, Mike Kelly, and said: “You know, they’re cutting you people up pretty bad over on the McGovern plane.” He said, “Yeah, I know. There’s nothing we can do about it now, but we’re trying to figure out a way to get our story out after the campaign. What really pisses me is that we haven’t had a single call from Teddy White.” He talked about the several ways they might float their version of the episode. The way they chose solved two problems at once—getting White’s eye and giving Eagleton’s defense a wide release. They turned over Eagleton’s notes on the only private meeting he ever had with McGovern during the crisis—Sunday night, the day before he was dumped. White prints them for the first time:

George complimented me on my “Face the Nation” performance. I complimented him on Jean West-wood’s hatchet job—and I used just those words—on “Meet the Press”….

To this McGovern rejoined, “Tom, believe me I had no idea what she was going to say. Only this afternoon when she and Basil Paterson came by my house did I first learn of what she said.”

Don’t shit me, George,” I said. This was the first time in our recent political linkage that either of us had said to the other anything that was less than kind. George smirked. Not a smile of faint amusement. Not a frown of slight irritation. A smirk, that’s what it was.

All right, Tom, let’s talk some facts. You tell me your facts, I’ll tell you mine.”

White, ever grateful for an exclusive, swallows the Eagleton line that “my health just wasn’t on my mind, it wasn’t on my mind, it was like a broken leg that healed.” But one does not hide the fact that one has broken the same leg three times, using elaborate cover stories, sticking to those stories when rumors return about them, accepting other damaging stories (about drinking) to hide this more dangerous admission. That tale, to anyone less gullible than White, has to rank with Eagleton’s claim that his doctors would not let him release his own records, even in private, to his running mate. You and I, dear reader, have had to apply for life insurance, and we know that releasing our doctors’ records is a standard procedure, where there is any reason for the recipient to know, and where the patient agrees. But White judiciously concludes: “At no point during this or the next ten days was Eagleton dissembling to or concealing from George McGovern.”

Hart’s book chafes over the elusiveness of those records. He had reservations on every plane that could get him to the hospitals, and just waited for Eagleton’s word. Nixon’s men would, presumably, have sent the plumbers to burgle Mayo’s clinic; and it is true that McGovern was too decent for that. But surely there should be a middle ground. An ultimatum, in the first few hours: the records, now, or goodbye. I asked McGovern during the campaign why he did not handle it as Eisenhower had—he made Nixon prove he was clean as a hound’s tooth to get back on the ticket. McGovern cited my own book against me, and said, “I don’t think that was General Eisenhower’s finest hour.” Of course, it did show the ruthless side of Eisenhower; but presidents are not ultimately graded for their thoughtfulness toward subordinates—nor should they be. Nixon, after all, is more thoughtful of Haldeman’s welfare than Eisenhower was of Sherman Adams’s—but which man do you prefer? Eisenhower not only asked Nixon for an accounting of himself; he ordered a separate investigation of his running mate’s finances. This is not at all like burgling the office of Dana Smith, the manager of Nixon’s fund. But it goes far (and beneficially) beyond polite intermittent requests that Nixon let Eisenhower’s people know some of the details about his background.

McGovern’s aides were disproportionately angry over reactions to Eagleton. There was suddenly a cult of the Missouri senator and righteous distaste for the South Dakotan. Polls and other indications show that Eagleton would not have been nearly as popular if he had stayed on (the issue of those records would no more die than the issue of Nixon’s tapes). But the Oedipal feeling of semi-regicide let people blame McGovern for their own decision that a man familiar with shock treatment should not control the bomb. It seemed unfair to the McGovernites that dishonesty should be condoned, but not bad judgment. Yet the presidency needs more judgment than honesty. Nixon’s real crimes—from Haiphong to Calley to Mayday—were the results of bad judgment rather than dishonesty. Even Watergate, a minor thing compared to his war crimes, was as stupid as it was immoral.

The other complaint of McGovern aides ties in with the erroneous assault on White: that reporters made too much of internal squabbles and minor personality faults. But the Weil and Hart books are now here to show how terribly important these were. Not in themselves, to be sure. Hart stood or fell on the matter of letting people stand or sit at staff meetings. Weil, with a talent for infuriating, drifted everywhere spreading trouble. (On the very last day of the campaign he tried to take a petty revenge on Connie Chung.) The important thing is not that these squabbles occurred, but that McGovern could not stop them, iron out their consequences, break off their publication. Imagine trying that on Eisenhower. Haldeman and Ehrlichman have given loyalty and efficiency a bad name; but they still count in a man who must run a country.

White, naturally, takes the standard view of McGovern as too nice for his own good, telling little white lies to be polite, unable to hurt his aides and therefore unable to stop their squabbling. He thinks of him as an overkind professor. But McGovern, despite his doctorate, is not interested in ideas. His biographer, Bob Anson, told me how his staff had to guide him in pronouncing polysyllables. He has no hobbies, no interests outside politics. He is as singleminded in his ambition as Nixon—a fact that should have been obvious when he would not let other senators use the mailing list he took from supporters of the Hatfield-McGovern bill. He ran without consideration of the consequences in 1968, splitting the antiwar amendment forces. He was geared to run before Chappaquiddick. He will try again. He is half a Nixon and half a Stassen, believing still in part of the myth that nice guys win, and then trying to fake it.

Nixon, with his obsequious deferential public air, is farther along on the spectrum of cynicism than McGovern. But that scale is a single measure. McGovern could not be cynical enough or naïve enough, in the right proportions or at the right time. He ended as a tragi-comic figure, the “McGoo” that pool reports called him on the campaign planes and buses. Nixon’s victim, of course, in an immediate sense; but more subtly victimized, years before, in the way he resembles Nixon. Hunter Thompson, early in the campaign, saw his problem clearly enough: “He has become the Willy Loman of the Left; he is liked, but not well-liked….” (Thompson became “soft” on McGovern as the months went by because he admired Mankiewicz so—Crouse rightly discerns that prejudice for or against a candidate often arises in newsmen because of close relations with one or other of the man’s aides.)

Thompson is inexcusable, not least for this—he wrote the best book about the campaign. It is dead wrong in certain of its central judgments (e.g., that McGovern’s error was to “move right” when he should have stuck with his first constituency—what does Thompson think he ended up with?). But the frenzy of the campaign, as seen from the planes and buses and hotels, is rendered almost painfully well. In Campaign ‘72, Ben Wattenberg says, “Everybody that I’ve known who has ever worked on a political campaign—right, left, or center—comes up with the same basic viewpoint, that what you read in the media isn’t what’s happening.” That depends. Too often, admittedly, what you read is what is happening on the campaign plane, or back at campaign head-quarters. But that is where the candidates themselves are. They see what the reporters see—or, rather, less than that. McGovern was depressed every time he returned to Washington, and yearned to be out on the plane again, fooling himself with crowds. The press was abused on the plane because they saw what was there, not what McGovern pretended that he saw.

Still, campaigns are in the last analysis bouts of craziness, and Thompson worked hard to render that. He saw very early that Muskie was a sleepy volcano, out of control. Now we know there were many more incidents than the crying jag in New Hampshire—e.g., he almost resigned in a fit of pique after Florida. These “backstage” things are worth reporting—the ethos of an administration is established in the kind of campaign a man runs, and that flows directly from his personality. We may not all end up with the faces we deserve; but candidates mainly get the aides they deserve. In 1968 we elected, without knowing it, Bob Haldeman. In 1972—it may be our only consolation—we did not elect Gordon Weil.

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