Fifty years ago this November, Nixon buried the hapless George McGovern under the third-largest landslide in the history of American presidential elections. McGovern carried only one of the 50 states, Massachusetts. The benighted American masses wouldn’t stop chanting “four more years,” to the dismay of peaceniks and intellectuals everywhere.
Five decades later, we still haven’t absorbed the reasons behind Nixon’s triumph. Few liberals grasp the sources of Nixon’s appeal, which cut across partisan lines and gave him a huge victory, even among voters who wanted out of Vietnam immediately, which was supposed to be Nixon-haters’ signature issue.
Until you get Richard Nixon, you don’t get America.
In the eyes of the left, Nixon won because he stoked mid-America’s resentments, which became their charge against Reagan and Trump as well. (Lately, channeling resentment has become the go-to explanation among liberal journalists and others when someone you disapprove of wins an election.) Trampling on our better angels, Nixon brought out the vicious, racist, sexist underside of the American psyche, at least that’s the way the story went. Ordinary racist, sexist white guys were just fed up with the Blacks, the gays, and the bra-burning women.
But Nixon was not Archie Bunker, despite his disdain for Ivy League meatheads. His appeal sprang not from reactionary grudges but from commonly held moral ideas that McGovern’s Democratic Party had turned its back on. The McGovern forces, like today’s progressives, believed that worries about crime were overblown, that all inequities come from the system, not culture or individual choice, and that American history was nothing to be proud of. Post-1972 debacle, McGovern’s manager, Frank Mankiewicz, lamented that the campaign had given in to pressure from wild-eyed radicals, “the cause people.” “If I had to do it all over again, I’d learn when to tell them to go to hell,” Mankiewicz said, a word of warning to present-day Democrats.
Hunter S. Thompson covered the 1972 campaign for Rolling Stone. His dispatches from one-night cheap motels, aided by liberal doses of speed, ayahuasca and bourbon, became a superb book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Thompson had already traveled with Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. “Getting assigned to cover Nixon in ’68 was like being sentenced to six months in a Holiday Inn,” Thompson wrote. The one bright spot was when Nixon’s campaign manager invited him to ride with Nixon on the campaign bus so that the candidate could talk football with Thompson, the only seriously football-savvy journalist to be found. “We had a fine time,” Thompson reported, since Nixon was “a goddamn stone fanatic on every facet of pro football.”
Thompson walks a razor’s edge between hard-drinking, hard-drugging cynicism and a desperate chink of hope, which he fastens to McGovern in spite of the South Dakotan’s flaws. Thompson’s prose, usually more fun than a barrel of meth-addled spider monkeys, turns sober and dull when he lauds the McGovern adviser Fred Dutton, who proclaimed that the younger generation could singlehandedly win elections for Democrats—another presage of current Democratic fantasies.
The Democratic presidential wannabes of 1972 were a rabbit hutch of also-rans, another sad likeness to the present day. “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here ... Except Maybe Ted Kennedy ...,” Thompson wrote—but Kennedy wasn’t running. Instead, Hubert Humphrey was in the house, “a treacherous brain-damaged old vulture,” Thompson observed. By late spring Humphrey, the Joe Biden of his day, was the last chance of the anti-McGovern faction.
The runt of the litter was John Lindsay, mayor of New York, a basket case of a city with a towering crime rate and over-the-top welfare rolls. In Florida he courted the Jewish vote, donned a scuba suit and acquired a tan, but this didn’t help him in the primary. Instead Florida went to the racist troglodyte George Wallace.
The early front-runner was Maine Sen. Ed Muskie, anointed by Big Labor and the Democratic establishment. Muskie called his chartered election train the “Sunshine Special.” On board was football star Rosey Grier, who sang “Let the Sun Shine In” (Grier had tackled Sirhan Sirhan after he killed RFK). Muskie gave people absolutely no reason to vote for him, and so he was a goner. After “crying in the snow” in New Hampshire, Muskie was eclipsed by McGovern, who crushed the competition in Wisconsin’s primary.
Like many others at the time, Thompson believed that McGovern’s double-crossing of his VP pick, Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri, put the kibosh on his chances to be president. Eagleton seemed like a “harmless, Catholic, neo-liberal Rotarian nebbish from one of the border states,” Thompson wrote, but he turned out to be a major calamity for the campaign. McGovern said he stood behind his veep choice “1000 percent” when the news broke that Eagleton had been hospitalized three times for nervous breakdowns, even getting electroshock therapy. Eagleton stubbornly refused to leave the ticket and so McGovern had to kick him out, substituting the equally nebbishy Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law. The man of integrity from South Dakota was suddenly revealed as a backstabber, and an incompetent one to boot.
Here Nixon showed the streak of nobility that so many have denied him. The president wrote a letter in longhand to Eagleton’s 13-year-old son Terry: “What matters is not that your father fought a terribly difficult battle and lost. What matters is that in fighting the battle he won the admiration of foes and friends alike because of the courage, poise and just plain guts he showed against overwhelming odds.”
The Eagleton scandal was a serious blow, but even without it, McGovern would have lost. He was forever saddled with the spectacle of the hippies who canvassed for him, knocking on suburban doors with their unkempt beards, psychedelic shirts and sandals. McGovern didn’t even favor legalizing pot, but that didn’t matter. Except for the Black communist Angela Davis, who campaigned for the Kremlin stooge Gus Hall (and later ran with him twice on the Communist Party ticket), every crackpot domestic terrorist-sympathizer in the land was for George McGovern.
The 1972 Democratic convention, held in Miami Beach of all places—headquarters of Jackie Gleason, where the hotel lobbies were chilled to 60 degrees so that ladies could wear their furs—looked like the disgruntled celebratory dirty flowering of 1960s youthcult. The New York and California delegations, which Mayor Daley had kept to the back of the auditorium in 1968, were now front and center, and full of colorfully attired freaks.
McGovernites welcomed the flavor burst of radicalism. They desired the greening of America, so we could all be hipped to what the kids were up to, whether it was dropping acid, burning draft cards or making pipe bombs. Nixon’s people were the silent majority, who wanted to keep politics in its place, not sprawled all over their daily lives. The silent majority still exists in our PC age. Harangued, guilt-tripped, and policed for microaggressions, they want the media and academic-elite diversocrats out of their hair.
The McGovern forces stumbled over the issue of people’s moral choices, which Nixon voters acknowledged but which they often ignored. Nixon talked about law and order, not out of resentment but rather loyalty to the ethics that most people shared. Killing cops was bad, the Nixonites said (in 1971, 129 police officers were murdered, the highest number anyone could remember). McGovern’s superleftist fans blamed something called oppression, not criminals with guns.
Finally, there was busing, a doomed policy that McGovern defended to the hilt, in robotic fashion, as the unpleasant but necessary payback for a history of racial injustice. Busing used white and Black kids as pawns instead of working to better African American schools, which had been decimated by the widespread elimination of tracking and gifted programs in the 1960s. Most people saw busing as an injustice the government was doing to their child, rather than a serious effort to achieve racial equality. Once again, the silent majority was following a commonsense moral feeling, but the McGovernite left tarred them as mere racists. To be sure, there were racists among the anti-busing forces, but that didn’t make busing a wise or just policy.
Nixon was a hard-bitten survivor all his life. Minutes before being ditched by Ike as VP, Nixon clawed his way back with the Checkers speech. He lost by a whisper of a hair to JFK, an election some claim he actually won (Daley, it was rumored, had unearthed dead voters in Chicago to give Illinois to JFK, and LBJ had done the same in Texas—accusations that today would be censored by high-handed techno-elites as “disinformation” but which eminent historians like Robert Caro would show to have been well-grounded). Pat Brown trounced him for California governor in 1962, and for the next six years Nixon had to scrape out a slow comeback, protecting his neck at every moment, and going kung fu on his opponents.
The same paranoia that serves you will later do you in, might be the lesson of Watergate, which reduced Nixon to a miserable, wounded jackal drunkenly addressing presidential portraits after midnight. Nixon was skulking and brazen-faced, arguably a war criminal, unquestionably a raving antisemite and prejudice-monger (“Aristotle was a homo, we all know that. So was Socrates ... the last six Roman emperors were fags,” he reminded Haldeman and Ehrlichman). Always apt to stick a furtive shiv in his enemies, he knew only the law of the jungle. Still Neil Young was right when he warbled, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul” (in “Campaigner,” a song prompted by Pat Nixon’s 1976 stroke).
Conniving, untrustworthy, a shameless crook and classic dorky overachiever, Nixon was also the last president who combined New Deal politics with a clear grasp of the moral beliefs shared by most Americans. He also championed many causes we now consider progressive. In 1971 he persuaded Southern schools to accept racial integration, 17 years after “Brown v. Higher Ed.” He brought Title IX into being, and hired far more women than any earlier president. Nixon started the EPA, got the Clean Air Act passed, and tried to get guaranteed basic income through Congress. He revolutionized Native American policy, giving tribes rights they had long been denied. His health care plan, blocked by Congress, was far to the left of anything proposed today.
Nixon’s opening to China was a grand strategic masterstroke. He edged us closer to peace with the Soviets. He also pounded Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos with more bombs than the U.S. had dropped in World War II, killing civilians in vast numbers. The alternative, Nixon argued, was to give in to the North’s inflexible demand: withdrawing all U.S. forces from Vietnam and toppling the Thieu regime so that the North could more easily turn all Vietnam communist. No American citizen could swallow such a course of action except for a few intellectuals and the hippies and yippies that most of the country despised.
Exiting Vietnam was Nixon’s only morally defensible option. It was what the public wanted, too. But North Vietnam was also demanding that America help them conquer the South, which neither Nixon nor the American public could accept. By November 1972 the North had left the negotiating table. They returned only after Nixon’s Christmas bombing in 1972, and they did so because of the bombing.
None of this excuses the cluster bombing that maimed and killed the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. But American public opinion, which approved of Nixon’s bombing raids by a large margin, was guilty too.
Fifty years after his triumphant reelection, which would soon turn to ashes, in part because of his own deep personal flaws, American history still can’t live with Richard Nixon—but it can’t live without him, either.
David Mikics’ excellent piece reminded editors and writers at Tablet of how good “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972” is, and how relevant it is today. If you’d be interested in joining some of us for a Zoom book club about it, write to us at [email protected]
David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.