McGovern's Rejection

By David S. Broder
Tuesday, November 14, 1972

Editor's note: This column, analyzing the outcome of the 1972 presidential election, was among those for which David Broder received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. We republish the column on the occasion of Broder's death.

A year ago last summer -- in July of 1971 -- I came across a passage in the paperback collection of Walter Lippmann's writings that struck me with great force.

Looking at that page now, I see scrawled in the margin one word: McGovern.

I was tempted to quote the passage at the time, but decided not to do so, because I do not think the responsibility of a political journalist includes advising his readers who to support for President of the United States.

I return to it now, only because I think it bears on the debate as to the cause of the massive rejection of George McGovern's candidacy.

It is being said by many persons of good judgment that McGovern was nominated by a small group skillfully manipulating the revised rules of the Democratic convention and that the positions he espoused -- while appealing to that activist clique -- placed him so far outside the mainstream of American politics that his defeat was foreordained. He is, in their phrase, a Barry Goldwater in reverse.

I disagree. There is a parallel between the defeated 1964 Republican nominee and McGovern, but it is not the one these observers suggest.

McGovern and Goldwater were nominated the same way: Not through the manipulations of a radical clique (though both had dedicated supporters) but by defeating their strongest remaining challengers in the decisive primary in the largest and most heterogeneous state -- California.

They were alike, too, in raising issues that were advanced for the time. But no one today would maintain that the issues Goldwater raised -- law and order, the concentration of power in Washington and the presidency -- were "outside the mainstream," and I suspect that will prove true of McGovern's concern with defense spending, and tax inequities, too.

What Goldwater and McGovern had in common -- and what defeated both, so resoundingly ¿ was that in the course of their campaigns, the voters came to the same conclusion that political and journalistic Washington had previously reached: that they were lightweights in the heavyweight division of presidential politics. They were men of good heart and good spirit, open and honorable, whose failing was their tendency to see public questions in one-dimensional, almost simplistic terms.

And because the presidency is a place where only the complex, multi-faceted questions come for decision, it is a place where moralizing and oversimplification are terribly dangerous. Somehow, the American people know this and reject those who lack the essential subtlety, skepticism and -- I suppose -- deviousness the presidency requires.

All of this Lippmann said, much better, in the passage I came across in mid-1971. And what gives it special meaning is that he was writing not of George McGovern, of course, but of William Jennings Bryan.

Substituting McGovern's name for Bryan's in this quotation may give a hint as to what his place in history will be:

"I do not see the statesman in Bryan. He has been something of a voice crying in the wilderness, but a voice that did not understand its own message. Many people talk of him as a prophet. There is a great deal of literal truth in that remark, for it has been the peculiar work of Bryan to express in politics some of that emotion which has made America the home of new religions.

"What we know as the scientific habit of mind is entirely lacking in his intellectual equipment. There is a vein of mysticism in American life, and Mr. Bryan is its uncritical prophet. His insights are those of the gifted evangelist, often profound and always narrow.

"It is absurd to debate his sincerity. Mr. Bryan talks with the intoxication of the man who has had a revelation; to skeptics that always seems theatrical. But far from being the scheming hypocrite his enemies say he is, Mr. Bryan is too simple for the task of statesmanship.

"The work of Bryan has been to express a certain feeling of unrest -- to embody it in the traditional language of prophecy. But it is a shrewd turn of the American people that has kept him out of office."

Lippmann concluded by saying what I hope this piece suggests -- that this is written "not in disrespect of his qualities, but in definition of them." McGovern, like Bryan and like Goldwater, may well be one of those presidential losers who have profound impact on our political history. But it was "a shrewd turn" of the American people that denied him the office.

© 1972 The Washington Post Company