Democratic Convention
Democratic Convention; drawing by David Levine

It was a joy to be at the Democratic convention this year. The convention was a triumph for the young and the young of heart. I managed to wangle a floor pass and wander around among the delegates during the decisive vote on the California credentials, and I felt I had lived to see a miracle. Those who had been in the streets in Chicago were now, only four years and one convention later, in the delegates’ seats in Miami. Black faces; Spanish, Mexican, and Indian faces; Spanish, Mexican, and Indian faces; and women testified to a political convulsion that had for the first time broken barriers of race, sex, age, and class on a substantial scale in a major party gathering.

To find a parallel in American history one had to go back to the Jacksonian revolution which first gave the right to vote to men without property and then replaced patricians with commoners in public office. Once more, with McGovern’s victory in the Democratic party, a nominee could truthfully say, “American politics will never be the same again.” Fresh forces from the grass roots had found a way to power. Win or lose this year, they will be back. They are the future.

One old politico who survived the earthquake looked over his fellow delegates and told a reporter in disgust, “They look like the cast of Hair.” Among the new faces—sideburned, bewhiskered, and bearded in the now radical mode Victorians once regarded as eminently respectable (so limited are the symbols of revolt and the pendulum of fashion!)—were also many old squares: veterans of every lost cause back to the La Follette campaign of 1924 and the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948. Indeed the oldest delegate, eighty-five-year-old former Senator Ernest Gruening—a delegate from Alaska—made his political debut with the radical Republicans who broke away from the GOP to form the Bull Moose party and thus elected Woodrow Wilson in 1912. He was among the first to rally to McGovern and predict his victory when the rest of us—myself included—were skeptical.

On the convention floor were a scattering of these foolish old indomitables who never have sense enough to know when they are licked. The young testified to the reincarnation of the spirit, and the old, it seemed, to the resurrection of the body. I shook hands with lively ghosts out of a dozen forgotten crusades. When the anti-Daley delegation from Illinois two nights later put McGovern over the top for the nomination, it seemed as if, incredibly, the battered legions of the Lord had won themselves a victory at last.

When McGovern said that if he is elected, “There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombedout schools,” when he presented as his running mate not some crafty choice of Southern strategy like Wilbur Mills but a like-minded freshman senator from Missouri who has been fighting the Pentagon in the lobby of “Members of Congress for World Peace Through Law,” who could help cheering? How could Nixon and Agnew, or Nixon and Connally, Mr. Oil Depletion Allowance, match the youth and vigor—the simple decency—that shone in the faces of these candidates? From McGovern or Eagleton, who wouldn’t be glad to buy a used car?

But euphoria was already tinged with apprehension. It was beginning to look, even before the convention was over, as if McGovern’s Cultural Revolution, not unlike Mao’s, was rapidly to be “moderated” from above once the impassioned youngsters it had summoned into the streets carried the leader to power. Who could have dreamed that Mao would soon be beaming at Nixon, or McGovern courting Wallace, albeit circumspectly? McGovern’s path could be predicted by equations as dependable as those of celestial mechanics. A little-known long shot in politics could hope to win the nomination only by getting out in front on a whole series of issues, each designed to rally vociferous and energetic minorities to his banner. A long shot has nothing to lose and everything to gain by daring to take—or seeming to take—more or less radical positions. So a humane and good man but a hitherto conventional liberal suddenly stepped out in front when the presidential bug bit him. Otherwise he could not have rallied the army of volunteers who won the nomination for him by getting out the voters, especially new young ones aroused by the war issue.

On the war McGovern’s stand was far from being as consistent as his campaign literature claims. For the real record I recommend Robert Sam Anson’s McGovern: A Biography,* an amazingly candid campaign biography in which the author had the full cooperation of the senator and his wife, along with a promise that they would make no effort at censorship. It is obvious that the promise was kept, and it speaks well for both of them.


McGovern spoke at the 1969 Moratorium but was one of the first to condemn the Maydayers. Though he first attacked the Vietnam war in September, 1963, two years later—in October, 1965—he was telling a South Dakota audience that it was “too late to turn back now. Our nation has decided that we must stay and fight to stop the communists from taking over.” At one time in 1965 he was for stopping the bombing but replacing it with “quiet infiltration and subversion” of the North by South Vietnamese commandoes, not, he hastened to add, for “military victory” but to force Ho Chi Minh to the negotiating table! These woozy wobblings seemed unimportant when McGovern was leading an apparently hopeless fight for the nomination on an antiwar platform. They take on new significance in assessing the man as he nears the White House and the compromises begin.

Every candidate in a two-party system, once he wins the nomination, moves—or seems to move—toward the center; conservatives sound more liberal and liberals more conservative. In this stage of the campaign they tend to disillusion their own followers. The “morning after” of the McGovernites began before the nomination was won. The full-page ad, “A Letter from George McGovern,” in the Wall Street Journal on May 22, occasioned an alarm quite out of proportion to the rather tenuous concessions to be found in it. So did his enthusiasm for a platform wordier and vaguer than the “position papers” with which he had energized his youthful legions.

At the convention many women delegates were angered by his failure to accept the plank they wanted on abortion. The new proposed party charter was hastily shelved in an effort to appease congressional leaders, oldline machine politicians, and labor bosses, all of them opposed to reforms that would give the rank and file a hand in making policy. One of these reforms would have required party members to pay dues and would have helped free the party from subservience to fat cats and the old-line labor leaders. The Harris tax reform plank, far stronger than that in the proposed platform, was gaveled down and denied a roll-call vote though it seemed to have majority support. In these and other instances this “open convention” turned out to be run by a new and efficient machine. The appetite for internal party reform declined once the McGovernites had the delegates they wanted; that was “democracy” enough. Thenceforward McGovern’s whips strove to control their forces and to begin to search for “unity” via compromise.

This is an observation, not an argument that they were wrong. Anyone who has ever seen a new left convention, in which virtually every participant is his own splinter movement, with his own pet nostrums, may suspect that the McGovern whips were perhaps right. But the “kids” and some of the oldsters, like myself, have a strong anarchist streak, and the very qualities of efficiency and “toughness” that so impressed the media alarmed us. In politics, as in physics, the observer is part of the observation. We must admit that people like ourselves are so intent on reading the fine print that we often miss the big letters; we are so accustomed to defeat that we are suspicious of success. Power we regard as intrinsically evil and compromise as the No. 1 dirty word. But politics is impossible without it. Suddenly our hero turned out to be a man who is seriously out to win; under the gentle exterior, a ruthless fellow, with close aides often as flinty as apparatchiks in their determination to keep their rank and file under control.

The first overt sign of trouble within McGovern’s ranks was outside the convention hall gates on opening night, July 10. Pickets appeared who called themselves “Concerned McGovern Volunteers.” Several I talked with were high-school teachers from New York and California, none of them far-out types. They were handing out circulars calling for a meeting of volunteers and delegates Wednesday morning, July 12, “to form a grass-roots movement within the context of the McGovern campaign for ’72 and beyond.” The circular said:

…the existing political system is trying to close in on Sen. McGovern either by denying him the nomination or by forcing him to compromise…. Such compromises…deprive the Democratic party of a meaningful program around which we can build a coalition to defeat Nixon. A strong grass roots movement will give us the power to avoid major compromises and will assure the implementation of McGovern’s basic program: 1) the immediate withdrawal of all military forces from Southeast Asia; 2) the elimination of the economic inequities of our society; and 3) moves toward full equality…by eliminating racism and sexism…. The problem is not one of trusting George McGovern or any other candidate, but of mobilizing the kind of movement that will bring about major changes in our country. [emphasis in original]

The meeting Wednesday morning drew several hundred volunteers to the Starlight Room at the top of the Doral Hotel where McGovern had his headquarters. It got almost no coverage on television or in the press but it turned out to be tumultuous and crowded beyond the expectations of the organizers. This was because of McGovern’s statement the afternoon before in which he spoke for the first time of leaving a residual force in Southeast Asia until all POWs were released. The statement was made to a group of POW families who held a press conference to endorse his candidacy.


“I’m willing to compromise on many things,” one volunteer told the meeting Wednesday morning, “but if he wants to keep a residual force in Southeast Asia, I’m packing up and going home.” He was applauded, but the general tone of the meeting was not to go home but to stay in the campaign and be effective. There was distrust of the regular Democratic organizations—“we’re McGovern people, not Democrats.” There was distrust even of the McGovern organization, a feeling that the volunteers would be listened to only if they organized separately and showed their muscle in the voter registration drive. “It’s not just a question of McGovern winning,” said one volunteer whose words won obvious approval, “but how to change America after McGovern wins.”

The meeting broke up at 1 PM into regional workshops, focusing particularly on voter registration, with a promise from Gary Hart, McGovern’s youthful campaign manager, to meet with them the next morning at another meeting in the Starlight Room. But when they gathered next morning the Starlight Room was shut off, elevators no longer went up that high, and the Concerned Volunteers had to meet on a nearby public beach. Gary Hart never showed up. I believe we will hear more from them before the campaign is over.

The excuse for shutting off the Starlight Room was security. The hotel and the McGovern forces feared a repetition of the sitdown by some 200 farther left dissenters who blocked the Doral lobby Wednesday afternoon for six hours in protest against the “residual force” statement until McGovern himself came down and explained it a few hours before his nomination. Actually McGovern never used the term “residual force” in talking with the POW families and he certainly did not mean what Nixon means, which is to leave a small force indefinitely in South Vietnam until the Thieu regime is firmly established. That could be a long time.

McGovern claims that what he really meant is that he would not only remove all troops from Indochina but, once the POWs are released, even from Thailand and the adjacent seas. The confrontation was hysterical; time after time McGovern was shouted down before he could even answer a question. His cool was most impressive. When he ended by saying quietly that if elected President “I promise to lead a more decent, more open, more honest government,” and asked their cooperation, there were wild cheers and only a scattering of scornful comments. This encounter was made much of by television. But the meeting of the Concerned Volunteers, which was hardly noticed by the thousands of reporters in Miami, showed more seriously that McGovern might have been promising something he may not be able to deliver when he said his youthful legions would be at the service of every candidate on the ticket.

The problem of relations between the McGovern youth and the old machines may prove to be one of the most difficult of the coming campaign. The youngsters I talked with are ready to work with any machine that is really for McGovern but are on their guard against lip service and sabotage. They feel that they have proven they can take over local organizations as easily as they did the national. They believe the municipal machines and the old men who run them are on their way out.

They will certainly regard Daley’s curiously generalized statement of support for the ticket as a ruse. Indeed, Mayor Rizzo’s open hostility in Philadelphia may prove less dangerous than Daley’s rancorous guile in Chicago. Daley candidates lost out in the primaries for both the governorship and for Cook County state’s attorney. The latter office, which controls the spot where the bodies are buried, has always been essential to the Cook County machine. The victorious candidate is Edward V. Hanrahan, the incumbent; he is under indictment for obstruction of justice in the Black Panther killings of 1969. Daley must make his peace with Hanrahan, for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office can do his machine a lot of damage.

But it is hard to see McGovern volunteers helping to re-elect Hanrahan, as it is hard to believe that Daley will give McGovern more than formal support. The shrewd tactic for the bosses is to pretend allegiance to the ticket to keep the youngsters from taking over. In the municipal machines, as in the labor unions, new and younger men are itching to take over. They might provide more reliable allies than the unhappy, senescent old bulls who have so long ruled these restive and no longer submissive herds.

I am all for keeping the heat on McGovern from the left, but not to the point of unrealistic tantrums. The McGovern-Eagleton ticket, whatever its compromises, offers the country a real choice and a real change of direction for the first time in years. The Kennedy-Nixon campaign of 1960 (which I sat out) was by comparison a sham battle between two cold warriors. At stake this year is the future of the Supreme Court, the dominance of the military-industrial complex, and the possibility of a shift from imperialism to domestic reconstruction. McGovern offers hope in all three sectors.

This Issue

August 10, 1972