The publication of this account of George McGovern’s costly blunder in the 1972 presidential campaign raises the question: What was the most incompetent major-party presidential campaign of the 20th century? No doubt strong cases can be made for William Jennings Bryan in 1908, John W. Davis in 1924, Alfred M. Landon in 1936, Richard M. Nixon in 1960 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, but for my money it’s a tossup between McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. Who can forget the 1988 attack ad to end all attack ads, in which Dukakis was shown riding in a tank, his ludicrously helmeted head barely appearing above the top? He may have been the first candidate almost literally laughed into defeat. By the same token, who can forget the extraordinary incompetence that resulted in Thomas Eagleton’s selection as McGovern’s running mate and his dismissal a mere 18 days later?
These days the selection of vice presidential candidates is an incredibly — probably excessively — prolonged and elaborate process, designed not so much to determine his or her compatibility with the presidential nominee as to make sure there are no embarrassing skeletons in the running mate’s closet, though John McCain skimped on the process in 2008 and paid for it with the complicating presence of Sarah Palin on his ticket. This seems a tedious business now, but if Nixon had been more careful in 1968, Spiro Agnew wouldn’t have been inflicted on the country; and if McGovern had done his due diligence in 1972, he wouldn’t have had to suffer the irreparable, self-inflicted damage of repudiating his chosen candidate. To be sure, his defeat probably was a foregone conclusion, given the electorate’s skepticism about his left-of-center views — not to mention the dirty tricks that Nixon’s henchmen were up to — but the Eagleton episode made the campaign that followed essentially pointless.
In any case, all this is now rehashed at considerable length by Joshua M. Glasser in “The Eighteen-Day Running Mate.” Glasser, a researcher for Bloomberg Television, is a very recent graduate of Amherst College (Eagleton’s alma mater). He must be awarded a few points, I suppose, for having done such extensive research at so early an age, not to mention managing to make a book out of it, but it is difficult to believe that the book will be of much interest to any except the most hardened political junkies, and even these will find almost nothing in it — nothing important, at least — that they don’t already know. For all the interviews he has conducted and the documents he has read, Glasser has nothing to add to what this unfortunate event already has taught us.
Because the 1972 election took place four decades ago, it probably is necessary to sketch in the central details of the story. McGovern, who turned 50 that summer, was the junior senator from South Dakota and an impassioned opponent of the Vietnam War. It was a time when the rules of presidential politics were beginning to change, quite possibly for the worse, as the rank and file were wresting control, through the primaries, away from the bosses who previously controlled the nominating process. McGovern was the candidate of the rebellious young on college campuses and their older sympathizers, and they came out in the primaries to vote for him, pushing him past Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey and into the nomination.