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What Might Have Been

Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; 1:00 PM

After trying-and failing-to capture the White House, would-be presidents face what might be an even tougher challenge: figuring out the rest of their lives. Just ask George McGovern.

Michael Leahy, whose article, What Might Have Been, about life after losing the presidency appears in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

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Leahy is a Magazine staff writer.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Michael Leahy: Hi. I see we have a lot of questions, so we'll get started. Vote and query often.

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Bethesda, Md.: A great story, beautifully written. I loved how McGovern, after a period of the blues, so skillfully picked up the pieces and moved on to accomplish so much. A lesson for all of us, Dems and Republicans alike, in dealing with adversity. A question: did Kerry, in your opinion, fail to heed the advice of McGovern and Mondale and others to keep a low-profile for a while after the reelection? I found your point about the New Nixon and reinvention very interesting in this regard. Again, fantastic story.

Michael Leahy: Thanks for the kind comment and the question. McGovern and Mondale in particular believe that Kerry would be best-served by staying out of the limelight for a while, not merely to recover from an arduous campaign and tough loss but also to avoid the possibility of making a mistake and saying something rash -- their point being that the pain of the loss is too fresh. In addition, commentators cannot help but revisit the recent campaign if the losing candidate steps back into the fray too soon.
Many of you might have seen John Kerry recently on Meet the Press. Perhaps he expected bouquets in light of his close loss, but there was host Tim Russert hitting him with tough questions about his Vietnam war record, and why he had not spent more money from his ample campaign fund. Then Russert began grilling him (quite fairly) about 2008, reminding him of a Massachusetts poll that showed most voters in that state opposed to a Kerry presidential candidacy in '08. It was not a flattering appearance for Kerry. He looked somewhat trapped under the barrage of tough questions. You had the impression that the Kerry people might come in at any moment with the Jaws of Life
to extricate their guy.
It was all proof of the wisdom of McGovern and Mondale to runnerups: Stay out of the arena for a while.

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Staunton, Va.: Michael,

Great article on George McGovern. Many reasons were given for the presidential loss but I was wondering if Mr. McGovern has one primary reason for the loss? Does he see any current political leaders as a primary candidate for the 2008 election?

Thanks.

Michael Leahy: McGovern believes, in retrospect, that no Democrat could have defeated Nixon that year. But he thinks that a combination of factors led to his landslide loss: the Eagleton debacle; his own failure to deliver his acceptance speech until nearly three a.m. East Coast time, out of prime time even on the West Coast; the success of the Nixon campaign in depicting him as a radical and flake.
He wishes now that he had kept Eagleton on the ticket, believing that there would have been less fallout had he gone on television and made the case that Eagleton had fully recovered from his illness.
Re 2008: No, he has indicated no preference. But history suggests he'll eventually lend his support to some Democratic pursuing the nomination. In 2004, he endorsed Wesley Clark.

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Riverside, Ill.: Given what George McGovern stood for -- facing the truth about the Vietnam war, and the truth about Watergate -- is it fair to say he deserves significantly better treatment from history than his normal reference as a footnote to a landslide?

Michael Leahy: Well, history can be cold and cruel. Ask the average guy about William Jennings Bryan, a three-time nominee, and he is likely to answer, "Who?"
Charles Evan Hughes sat on the Supreme Court, and ran in 1916 against incumbent Woodrow Wilson. But he lost that presidential race, with the result that you'd find few history college students, I imagine, who could identify him.
McGovern's legacy will probably be viewed by many people as three-pronged: landslide loser; prescient about Vietnam (along with people like Senators Morse, Gruening, etc.); and wise and compassionate on the issue of hunger and malnutrition in America and around the world. He remains deeply involved, of course, on the issue of hunger, leading an effort with old nemesis Bob Dole to combat international hunger.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I recall a poll during the Watergate crisis that asked who people claim they had voted for in 1972. Interestingly, most people claimed they had voted for McGovern. Did George McGovern like it that, just a few years later, it seemed the majority of America agreed with him on Nixon?

Michael Leahy: McGovern does chuckle over that poll you referenced. I think it's fair that it warms him considerably. Let me segue to another matter: I am getting quite a few questions about why McGovern did not better exploit the Watergate issue. Remember that the break-in, and the start of the coverup, occurred in June, 1972. The story did not resonate with the American public in any serious way until early 1973. McGovern and Frank Mankiewicz often had telephone conversations in '73 during which they lamented that the Watergate scandal had not broken six months earlier. McGovern believes (rightly so, I think it's fair to say) that the uncovering of the scandal in the midst of the campaign would have changed things dramatically. But he is careful not to conclude that he would have necessarily won under those circumstances.
Going back to McGovern's campaign mistakes (the Eagleton affair; the late acceptance speech, etc.): He believes that if he had better handled such things, he would likely have still lost, but that he would have probably carried something in the realm of 10-15 states and been quite credible for the 1976 race.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Did you interview Mondale in person for this article? In MN or in D.C.? I wonder how he feels about failing to win Wellstone's seat in 02. I've yet to see him walking the dog around Lake of the Isles, but it's not like you can recognize anyone nine months out of the year the way we have to bundle up...

Michael Leahy: Re interviews: I spent several days with George McGovern in South Dakota, and then a morning with him in Washington... I interviewed Walter Mondale over the phone. He left the impression that the presidential loss was far more disappointing than his Senate defeat. McGovern, who lost his Senate seat in 1980, said that nothing in politics was as painful as his '72 presidential loss.

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Hagerstown, Md.: Just a word of thanx for the great article on a great man. The McGovern campaign was the only political campaign I ever worked in and I think he would have been a great president. My apologies to Mr. McGovern for our poor showing. If he wants to run again, I am available.

R. L. Kershner

Michael Leahy: Just posting this comment from a McGovern fan.

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Alexandria, Va.: I think it shows that America was lucky to have avoided a President McGovern when he admits in your article that he would have been perfectly happy to have been elected a President representing only a minority of the electorate if George Wallace had run again and split the conservative vote. I guess "power at any price" must be the progressive slogan?

Unfortuately, the country was not to be so lucky in 1992 and 1996 when almost exactly the same happened when Ross Perot split the right-wing vote and elected and re-elected President Clinton. We are still living with those disastrous consequences.

Michael Leahy: In the interests of equal time and space, here's a posting from a McGovern critic.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Superb story on the would-be presidents. Loved how intimate your portrait of McGovern was. I don't think I've ever read a political story quite like it. Terrific to see that McGovern especially has found such fulfillment post-politics, even if he has still wondered over the years about the what might-have-beens. He seemed incredibly with it for somebody in his 80s. Did you settle on McGovern as a central character because of his age or for other factors? And do you, looking back at history, think he would have won the election had he not made the mistakes that he spoke about?

Michael Leahy: Thank you for the nice comment. Writers are always looking for bright and open subjects, and McGovern was ideal in that regard. Many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a very funny and sharp Barry Goldwater, and it came as little surprise to me that he and McGovern were pretty good friends. Were he still alive, Goldwater would have made a wonderful subject for the subject. I should note that Bob Dole, who has a new book coming out soon ("One Soldier's Story" -- about his World War II experiences -- was gracious enough to give me some time.

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Portland, Ore.: Hello Mr. Leahy. I read your great McGovern article. My question is why didn't McGovern use Watergate during the campaign, and also do you think he lost so badly because of his policies, Eagleton, the 3 a.m. Convention speech, or something else? Another question is do you believe it was true that the "President's Men" destroyed the Muskie candidacy because they wanted to run against McGovern? Thanks.

Michael Leahy: I think I touched on Watergate earlier, but let me say that the historical case (as exemplified by Don Segretti and the so-called Dirty Tricks brigade) is strong for the notion that the Nixon people did not want to run against Muskie. While the Nixon chieftains did not exactly have McGovern in mind, they did little to conceal their pleasure with having McGovern as the nominee as the '72 campaign proceeded.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for such a compassionate, exquisitely told story about George McGovern and the other failed nominees. I still remember the 1972 election (I was a McGovern supporter) and always have wondered how McGovern and other nominees who lost in landsides dealt with the blow. I was reminded, reading your story, about how they must cope with many of the same stages of grief as the rest of us after a loss of something precious. Though McGovern lost, I think he's an inspiring example of how to get through an awful ordeal and emerge as a wiser, more sensitive and even happier person. Looking at McGovern, Dole, Mondale and the others you wrote about, and their advice to losers, I was wondering how John Kerry will fare. Gore doesn't seem to have managed his own defeat as skillfully as the others, if you ask me. Do you think, as it pertains to Kerry, that there are any early indications how wisely he is dealing with defeat and post-election things?

Michael Leahy: McGovern went through all the stages after '72, as he will tell you. But no defeat he suffered in politics remotely compared to losing his daughter Terry, of course -- which he discussed at some length in the story.
We talked about Kerry, which brings us to Gore, who is the subject of many questions I'm getting here. Many Democratic observers with whom I've spoken think that Gore did a supremely wise thing in staying out of '04 and perhaps leaving open the door to '08.
Someone said to me, "Gore, maybe inadvertently, is following the Nixon model." It was an allusion to the fact that Nixon, who was the only 20th century nominated loser to come back and win the Presidency, waited eight years after his 1960 defeat to JFK before again seeking the White House. It was plenty of time to become The New Nixon.

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Clear Lake City, Tex.: Just to echo what another visitor said, Mike... Senator McGovern's campaign came at an important nexus in our national history.

I had a giant VOTE MCGOVERN poster in my window in my house in (at the time) rural Pennsylvania.

I was the only McGovern voter (even then they called me a "McGovernnite") for miles. It was tragic, and I was sure that in your fine piece you and the Senator nailed the two biggest problems: his 2 or 3 am speech, and the loss of Tom Eagleton.

Thanks again for a great piece about a wonderful guy. I will never forget Senator McGovern and what he meant to me and my family.

"HiFlyer"

Michael Leahy: A posting from Texas. Thanks for writing in.

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Bloomfield, N.J.: Mr. Leahy,

Forgive the off-topic question, but I've just finished your book "When Nothing Else Matters," and I'm wondering if you've gotten any response to it from Michael Jordan or any in his camp. If you did a Live Online session to promote the book, I am sorry I missed that.

Michael Leahy: Bloomfield: Thanks for writing in. No, I haven't received any response from Mr. Jordan.

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Greenwich, Conn.: Thank you for presenting all your characters as whole men, especially George McGovern. Americans love to forget or disparage losers. You did literature on presidential politics such a fabulous service by revealing these presidential runnerups in their fullness, ennobling them and your terrific story as a result. Your writing and analysis about the aftermath for McGovern was poignant and elegant. I ponder one thing, and that is deep down in your heart, do you think McGovern looks with forbearance on the electorate? Does a Kerry?

Michael Leahy: McGovern is not a bitter man. He moves on, attending to his causes and passions, and seems quite happy. I can't tell you about John Kerry's view of the electorate, but McGovern understands, in retrospect, that politics is shaped by the social climate of the times, and that '72 just wasn't going to be his year against Nixon. His wife Eleanor, however, remains quite upset that his home state of South Dakota voted for Nixon.

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Clear Lake City, Tex.: Did McGovern have any comments on the similar conditions we face today in Iraq -- Imperialistic and greedy politicians getting their butts kicked in a third world country -- to his thoughts on Viet Nam?

Michael Leahy: Simply put, McGovern is fiercely opposed to the Bush Administration's policy on Iraq.

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Alexandria, Va.: What an article. One of the best, ever.

In the early 1980s, McGovern spoke at my college. I hadn't thought about him in years, but I remembered 1971-72 -- years when I was still climbing trees and playing with Barbies -- for the sparks that had flown from the television set and radio during constant coverage of the campaign. I remembered the stress and controversy of Vietnam, and the rage of my parents against each other (Republican and Democrat) which evidentally mirrored the political dynamic of the nation.

So I was surprised at how warm, smooth and pleasantly urbane, and brilliant, were McGovern and his speech. He did not, to me, have any kind of aura of "loser," and I had trouble connecting him to the chaos and ugliness of that 1972 campaign.

I think the moral that was beginning to gell in my mind at that time, and which has been confirmed several times since then, is that often in politics the "best" guy -- your guy -- loses. And also, that intellectual brilliance has nothing to do with it.

It's all about organization, charisma, uncontrollable circumstances, and luck. (And, "It" -- the quality profiled in another Washington Post article this week about actors. Obviously, for all his gifts, McGovern simply does not have "It.")

This being America, I guess it is not the Dream but the opportunity to chase the Dream that is our greatest privilege. I hope McGovern dies proud of himself that he gave the chase his all, and survived its aftermath with dignity.

(P.S. And if I could personally thank George McGovern for anything, it would be his book about Terry. It is beautiful and brave.)

Michael Leahy: A posting from Alexandria that includes a commentary on McGovern...

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Richmond, Va.: Loved your article.

I was five months too young to vote for McGovern in 1972. It is one of my great regrets.

I remember seeing McGovern and Goldwater on a talk show many years ago. Both decried how nasty and personal politicking had become. The McGovern said something to the effect of "Barry, let's run again and show them how to do it right." Goldwater agreed, but it was very evident that the day was ending for these two old warriors from the far ends of the political spectrum.

Another time he was on a multi-commentator talk show. One of the commentators was William F. Buckley. Without thinking, Buckley made reference to "those McGovern Democrats." Without missing a beat, McGovern replied, "Oh, yes, they're the worst kind."

Today in politics it seems there's nothing but ugliness and personal invective. I'm old enough to remember when politicians had morals and ethics, and I wish those days would return. George McGovern is one of the few political people alive today who represents these qualities.

Michael Leahy: Ah, a posting about McGovern and Goldwater together.

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Oxford, Miss.: Although I was a youngster in the early 70s, I can remember McGovernism. Do you feel that McGovern's strong political stance ultimately rendered his political recovery from defeat near impossible? In light of his views and his defeat, are there conclusions that could be drawn from society's response?

Michael Leahy: I do think that the very thing you're talking about -- the perception of his fervent liberalism and how that made it difficult for him to rebound as a serious contender for the presidency in subsequent cycles -- is what makes McGovern so memorable. Like his good friend Barry Goldwater, he was more than a candidate. He was a cause, so much so that he and his politics were hung with that label you referenced: McGovernism. While that be a term of derision for his critics, it remains a source of pride for nearly all former aides from the McGovern camp.

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Michael Leahy: Thanks for all the wonderful questions and kind comments. I'll look forward to talking with you soon.

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