Most political journalists would not lend their press credentials to radical leftist drunkards they’d met at a bar the night before. Hunter S. Thompson is not most political journalists, though. He is crazy, and so was the man who received his ID during the 1972 Democratic primary campaign. The next day, this counterfeit journalist boarded a campaign bus, physically and verbally assaulted the other reporters on the train, and grabbed then-frontrunner Edward Muskie’s legs as Muskie tried to make a campaign speech—all while wearing Thompson’s name tag. Hunter Thompson seems to attract those kinds of characters.
In 1972, Thompson wrote a series of articles for Rolling Stone about the presidential campaign. He would eventually turn these into a book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, a remarkably entertaining and, more often than one would expect, insightful account of the campaign, from the fight for the Democratic nomination to the race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon for the presidency. For Democrats interested in winning the 2004 election, Thompson’s analysis of the ‘72 campaign is a must-read, especially in light of the frequent comparisons between McGovern and current frontrunner Howard Dean that one hears from commentators left and right these days.
When he was commissioned by Rolling Stone to cover the presidential campaign, Thompson was a well-known writer for the magazine. In his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his alter-ego Raoul Duke had set out in search of the American dream. Here, Thompson embarks on a different, but maybe related quest: defeating Richard Nixon. In 1972, the Democrats were fighting for the chance to unseat Nixon, a president detested by liberals for his dishonesty and his inability to pull out of Vietnam. McGovern, a progressive, anti-war senator from South Dakota, was originally seen as a spoiler candidate, not serious competition for establishment politicians like Edward Muskie and former Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey. But he built up a fantastic grass-roots campaign organization and garnered enough delegates at the Democratic Convention to receive the party’s nomination. And then everything fell apart. Eventually, McGovern was trounced in the general election, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Just how did McGovern lose so badly? Thompson tries to answer that question, though in a different way than any other journalist would dream of. Thompson’s unique method of reporting, called “gonzo journalism” by his fans, is very distinctive: he does not shy away from describing in detail his many, many adventures with substance abuse; he liberally laces factual accounts with his opinions; and he whines, ad infinitum, about deadlines. Even though his schedule of one article every two weeks was much less grueling than the responsibilities of the daily reporters, Thompson spends pages each chapter complaining about the incredible pressures involved in finishing his pieces.
Some readers might not warm to his unorthodox approach to journalism. Thompson’s credentials, however, are impressive. He’d attended and covered the 1968 convention. He followed McGovern throughout much of the primary season and through the general election. And he had enviable access to McGovern’s staff throughout much of the year because of his favorable coverage. He even once ran for office himself in Colorado (for Sheriff on the “Freak Power” ticket, losing by about 500 votes). So, despite the way he sometimes presents himself, Thompson is more than a babbling junkie; he is an experienced and astute political observer uniquely qualified to assess McGovern’s candidacy. Though a credible political analyst, Thompson never pretends to be objective. He is in McGovern’s corner from the start, never concealing his disdain for the more moderate Democrats fighting for the nomination. And he positively revels in his contempt for Richard Nixon. Even when Nixon died in 1994, Thompson was vicious, writing in Rolling Stone, “Richard Nixon was an evil man—evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency.” Harsh words for an obituary. Thompson argues that McGovern was defeated because his campaign lost the energy it had in the primaries—the kind of energy derived from fighting against an entrenched, impersonal system. According to Thompson, much of McGovern’s support came from the electorate’s impression during the primary season that the South Dakotan was a sincere, anti-establishment idealist. Unfortunately, by the time he faced Nixon, the public perceived McGovern as a scheming, untrustworthy politician, no different from the others.
McGovern himself was largely responsible for the shift in opinion from the primaries to the general election, particularly with his handling of his choice for Vice President. When reporters alleged that Senator Tom Eagleton, McGovern’s original nominee for vice-president, had received electric shock treatments years earlier, McGovern first insisted he would retain Eagleton and support him however he could. Then, after a publicly aired debate among McGovern’s staff, McGovern dumped Eagleton, concluding that he could not win with him on the ticket. If you believe Thompson and others from the McGovern campaign, this caused a huge amount of damage. Suddenly, McGovern appeared to privilege political expediency over his own integrity. McGovern’s appeal—his refreshingly idealistic approach to politics—had vanished. As Thompson writes, “The Eagleton Affair was the first serious crack in McGovern’s image as the anti-politician.” Thompson wasn’t alone in this thinking. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Haynes Johnson, for instance, wrote in the Washington Post in October 1972, “George McGovern’s political problem stems not from the belief that he is a dangerous, radical, and unpatriotic American. His trouble lies in the way people feel about him personally. Many who were attracted to him earlier this year because of his freshness and promise now express strong disillusionment.”
Among those who discuss McGovern’s campaign today, the conventional wisdom interprets McGovern’s downfall differently. McGovern’s campaign is usually taken as a warning to other Democrats—especially, during this election cycle, Howard Dean—about what happens when a candidate stakes out positions that are too liberal. For example, Al From and Bruce Reed, heads of the moderate and influential Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), referred in a memo this May to the “McGovern-Mondale wing” of the Democratic party, “the wing that lost 49 states in two elections, and transformed Democrats from a strong national party into a much weaker regional one.” McGovern’s defeat still haunts the Democratic Party, and there are many who fear nothing more than the nomination of Howard Dean resuscitating the ghost.
The moderates have a reason for thinking like this; after all, the parallels between the two men’s candidacies are striking. Like McGovern, Dean takes an outsider’s approach to running against a Republican president whom, he claims, the Democrats have too meekly opposed. Also like McGovern, Dean established a powerful campaign organization that allowed him to emerge from a crowded pool of candidates. And, probably most significantly, Dean, like McGovern, has argued forcefully against a foreign conflict that has little chance of being resolved soon, a position that has made him popular among students and other liberal activists. McGovern himself has even praised Dean, telling David E. Rosenbaum of the New York Times that Dean “has the best force of grass-roots workers of any candidate, and he has handled himself very well.”
These similarities, however, do not mean that a Dean campaign will meet the same fate McGovern did 32 years ago. Many take for granted that the electorate in November of 1972 was disgusted by McGovern’s policies and therefore would never vote for him. This was not necessarily the case. McGovern’s Democratic Party was more ideologically divided than the Democratic Party is today. Although moderate Democrats exist today, the Party had a much stronger conservative influence in 1972. A candidate like George Wallace, who staunchly opposed racial integration and most other exercises of federal power while Governor of Alabama, could garner a significant portion of the vote in the Democratic Primary, even winning important states like Michigan and Florida.
Despite sharp differences in ideology, McGovern and Wallace still appealed to the same alienated lower middle-class voters, according to political communication scholars Dan Hahn and Ruth Gonchar Brennan. The reason for this, Hahn and Brennan argued in their book Listening for a President: A Citizen’s Campaign Methodology, is that both men were seen as anti-establishment forces for change. The 1972 election was not simply a case of McGovern appealing to a liberal electorate in the primary and then having policies that were out-of-step with the populace in the general election. His appeal was more fundamental than the conservative/liberal dichotomy—he attracted those who were dissatisfied with the status quo of American politics. When he forfeited that appeal by mishandling the Eagleton affair, his campaign lost its vitality.
Commentators have noticed the same discontent that characterized 1972 in American politics today. David Broder of the Washington Post recently linked the Dean campaign with the California recall, arguing that both are manifestations of a desire for change. This restlessness cuts across party or ideological lines. For example, the California recall, though initiated by Republicans, had a fairly broad appeal: 24 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Independents voted “yes” on the recall. Though most Dean supporters are Democrats—it is, after all, still the Democratic primary season—he has the potential to attract support from non-Democrats. Already, a “Republicans for Dean” website has been established, as has a “Dean Independents” website.
Of course, Dean can still fall prey to the same mistakes McGovern made. Many have recently attacked him for changing his positions on issues like the Cuban embargo, the death penalty, and Social Security, and for mincing words over the Confederate Flag. These are potentially damaging charges. If Dean is perceived as someone willing to flip his policies for political gain, he will not have a chance against George Bush. Dean relies on the energy of Americans who are frustrated with the current system, and the only way he can tap into this energy is by making people think that he will tell the truth, no matter the costs. He must come across as an anti-politician, fed up with the system. Though they were describing the political culture three decades ago, the words of McGovern’s advisor Frank Mankiewicz, as quoted in On the Campaign Trail, apply well to Dean today: “The worst thing to look like right now is a politician; this is a bad year for them.”
So, in a sense, the centrists are right: unless Democrats learn from McGovern, they will not win in 2004. The lesson, though, is not what the DLC preaches. McGovern’s defeat does not warn against liberal policies, or of the necessity of supporting the President’s foreign policy; instead, it cautions that a candidate who runs as an idealistic outsider must be consistent, or at least be perceived as such. If Dean wins the nomination and then earns a reputation as a pandering politician, the best Democrats can hope for is another scandal that removes the incumbent Republican from office.