George McGovern, with Warren Beatty, before the 1972 California primary.
George McGovern, with Warren Beatty, before the 1972 California primary.

Democrats started straggling into Miami Beach the second week in July, 1972. One of them was Robert Redford, arriving by train, promoting ‘The Candidate’ on a mock whistle-stop tour. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin set up housekeeping at the run-down Albion Hotel, where Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles once honeymooned. Everywhere, Hoffman and Rubin were mobbed by cops hoping to make it into the documentary that rumor had it Warner’s had paid them millions to shoot. They wouldn’t be doing much in the way of protesting, they promised, so long as the nomination wasn’t stolen from McGovern. “McGovern Backer No Longer Thinks Sons, Daughters, Should Kill Parents,” the RNC magazine First Monday headlined an interview with Rubin. Only tiny left-wing splinter groups considered McGovern the enemy.

Yippies met with Miami Beach’s glad-handing liberal police chief, who laid out the ground rules: “Fellas, I don’t believe in trying to enforce laws that can’t be enforced. If you guys smoke a little pot, I’m not going to send my men in after you.” They got the same welcome from Mayor Charles Hall. “Call me Chuck,” he said, before showing off his print of John and Yoko’s wedding day—“It’s the original, you know”—and offering them the city’s golf courses as campsites. When the Yippies staged their first march to the convention center, “Chuck” arrived to try to lead it. Abbie and Jerry were celebrities. Celebrity was power in 1972. Abbie and Jerry were all about the new youth vote. Youth was power, too.

At McGovern headquarters at the famous Doral resort, the usual haunt of golfing Shriners, hordes of kids awaited their hero’s arrival, “wearing,” Norman Mailer wrote, “copper bangles and spaced-out heavy eyes.” He imagined the reaction of the Democratic regulars: “Where were the bourbon and broads of yesteryear?”

Not at the Doral’s rooftop restaurant-bar; it was one of the few rooms left in town that still required a suit and tie. That meant this week it was empty. Prostitutes were lonely, too. The New Politics, this movement of acid and abortion for all, had a Calvinist work ethic. Many McGovern delegates had won their spots by outlasting the flabby old regulars in caucuses, just as they’d outlasted rival left factionistas at endless antiwar meetings. They were not in Miami to party. Germaine Greer, the women’s liberationist, complained she “couldn’t find anyone to ball.”

Presidential candidates arrived at Miami International Airport, one by one: Wilbur Mills, still rumored to be fronting a Ted Kennedy draft; George Wallace, who touched down in a plane provided him by the White House and was honored by the DNC with a brass band; Hubert Humphrey, who responded when asked whether he thought he could win, “I didn’t come down for a vacation.” John Lindsay landed to rumors that he was so unpopular that the New York caucus would be avoiding him. The front-runner touched down one hour late due to a tropical storm, after an airport press conference from George Meany in which the labor boss intoned, “We’ve made it quite plain we don’t like McGovern.”

But could he stop McGovern? That was the question. Any kind of chaos seemed possible. Meany called it “the craziest convention I’ve seen.” And he’d seen a few.

• • • • •

It had to be close to midnight Monday when the hippie from Arizona grabbed Abbie Hoffman around the waist and hollered, “I’m the first, man!”

“The first what?”

“The first fucker ever to cast a vote on acid.” (“There goes the Polish vote,” Abbie thought.)

That was during the roll call on California, the second vote of the evening. Other insurgents weren’t so happy. The first roll call had been on a challenge to the regular South Carolina delegation. And thanks to a parliamentary calculation so fantastically complex and paradoxical it resembled subatomic physics, the McGovern side had decided they had to lose it on purpose to show their strength.

The people they were selling out were feminists. The South Carolina challenge was the culmination of almost a year’s labor by a new organization, the National Women’s Political Caucus, which had formed in the summer of 1971 to pressure the parties for 40 percent representation of women at their conventions. At one time, such a demand would not have seemed particularly controversial—only a few months earlier, in fact, the Equal Rights Amendment had passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. One of the NWPC’s most aggressive activists was George Romney’s wife, Lenore; indeed, since time immemorial, both Democratic and Republican national committees had required membership balance by gender. The NWPC had no trouble, late in 1971, convincing Democratic officials to count a paucity of women in a delegation as prima facie evidence of violation of the McGovern Commission’s requirement of “affirmative steps” toward “reasonable representation.” The resentment came later, as the “women’s libbers” came to be considered and came to consider themselves vanguardists in pushing the boundaries of liberal consciousness. Abortion politics was one catalyst; women were beginning to claim “abortion on demand” as a right. Gay rights was another cutting-edge issue. Some feminists still considered both outrageous; Betty Friedan labeled the lesbians organizing within the National Organization for Women the “lavender menace.” It came to a head at Democratic platform-committee meetings in March. Shirley MacLaine confronted Gloria Steinem at the elevators: “If you people had your way, you’d have George support everyone’s right to fuck goats.”

Here was another development to warm the cockles of Richard Nixon’s heart: wedge issues within the New Politics coalition itself.

The NWPC came to Miami wearing defiant buttons: we’re here to make policy, not coffee. Their intention was to unseat the overwhelmingly male South Carolina delegation as an opening show of strength. They had the votes to do it and, just as important, George McGovern’s “unequivocal” endorsement. Then suddenly, during the first roll call of the 1972 Democratic National Convention, their sure votes started going the other way. Larry O’Brien’s decision about who would get to vote on the California challenge couldn’t be shown to be the McGovern coalition’s determining margin of victory— or else the anyone-but-McGovern forces would appeal O’Brien’s decision to the full convention. So McGovern deputies were racing up and down the aisles begging McGovern delegates to vote against the feminists. “Unequivocal does not mean ‘at the expense of the nomination,’” one of them said. The feminists, and their cigar-chomping strange bedfellows, lost the vote: The next roll call, on California, moved forward without objection. California’s winner-take-all rule prevailed. The word shot across the convention hall that McGovern had clinched the nomination—and also that he had done it by selling out reform.

Openness was proving a damned slow way to run a convention. It was close to 3 am when the roll-call vote on the Illinois challenge was finally called. It was close to dawn when the reformers finally won. They started screaming, jumping on their seats, singing “We Shall Overcome,” taking pictures, incredulous they really owned the seats of the old men they despised.

“The streets of ’68 are the aisles of ’72!”

“The aisles belong to the people! The aisles belong to the people!”

The losers repaired with their cigars to watch the rest of the show on TV, insisting a Democrat obviously couldn’t become president without the Cook County machine. Wrote the Chicago Daily News’s youth columnist, Bob Greene, on the other hand, “This is America, and someday Richard Daley may be able to earn a place inside the Convention Hall, just like Jerry Rubin. If the Mayor is willing to be patient and to work within the system.”

• • • • •

The next day, the business was voting on platform resolutions. McGovern operatives begged the women’s and gay liberationists to drop their demand for floor votes on their planks to moderate the Democrats’ image for TV. These operatives ruefully discovered that political purists could also act like ward bosses, extracting their own pounds of flesh. The gays reminded them of how McGovern would not have won the coveted spot at the top of the California primary ballot if it weren’t for a last-minute signature drive in the gay bars of the Castro by the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club. “We do not come to you pleading for your understanding or pleading for your tolerance,” San Francisco delegate Jim Foster pronounced during his ten minutes. “We come to you affirming our pride in our lifestyle, affirming validity to seek and maintain meaningful emotional relationships, and affirming our right to participate in the life of this country on an equal basis with every citizen.”

The TV lights made his light-colored linen jacket with its patchwork of thick lines look particularly garish. Then delegate Kathleen Wilch of Ohio went to the podium on behalf of McGovern. She asked delegates to vote against the gay rights plank: It would “commit the Democratic Party to seek repeal of all laws involving the protection of children from sexual approaches by adults” and force “repeal of all laws relating to prostitution, pandering, pimping”—and “commit this party to repeal many laws designed to protect the young, the innocent, and the weak.”

McGovern’s convention rejected gay rights in a landslide. Be that as it may, one week later, George Meany officially announced the AFL-CIO wouldn’t be endorsing a presidential candidate that year. At a steelworkers’ convention in September, he explained why: The “Democratic Party has been taken over by people named Jack who look like Jills and smell like johns.”

Then, the acrimonious battle over the abortion plank: “In matters relating to human reproduction each person’s right to privacy, freedom of choice, and individual conscience should be fully respected, consistent with relevant Supreme Court decisions.”

A “pro-choice” woman took the podium: “The freedom of all people to control their own fertility must be an essential human health right. . . . For the first time, 57 percent of all Americans believe abortion should be a decision between a woman and her physician.”

Then a “right-to-life” man spoke on “the slaughter of the most innocent whose right to live is not mentioned in the minority report.”

Then Shirley MacLaine spoke her piece in favor of her candidate’s position: equivocation. The subject should be “kept out of the political process,” she said, though delegates should “vote their conscience.” Some 250 McGovern floor whips raced once more up and down the aisles to defeat the plank, insisting Humphrey and Wallace supporters were conspiring to saddle McGovern with the “extremism” label to deny him the nomination. The plank lost by 472 votes. “Sisters vs. Sisters,” headlined the Washington Post the next morning: “Gloria Steinem’s usually controlled monotone quivered as she wept in rage, verbally attacked Gary Hart, and called McGovern strategists ‘bastards.’” The paper also quoted a pro-choice Humphrey supporter: “I resent the McGovern people who say he is so pure. One of the reasons so many women supported him six months ago was because they thought he was liberal on abortion.”

The New Politics reformers had fantasized a pure politics, a politics of unyielding principle—an antipolitics. But in the real world, politics without equivocation or compromise is impossible. Thus an unintended consequence for the would-be antipolitician. Announcing one’s inflexibility sabotages him in advance. Every time he makes a political decision, he looks like a sellout. The reformers fantasized an open politics, in which all points of view had time to be heard. That meant that the Tuesday session adjourned eleven hours after it began, at 6:15 am—a fortunate thing, coolheaded Democratic strategists decided, terrified over what this all looked like on TV.

• • • • •

On nomination day, Humphrey officially announced his withdrawal. George McGovern, whose campaign had once been such a long shot the network camera crews called his campaign bus the “morgue patrol,” would be the Democrats’ nominee for president.

Just as in 1968, McGovern was nominated by Connecticut senator Abe Ribicoff. During lulls in the roll call, the band played the theme from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. He was put over the top by one of Dick Daley’s friends, who even announced that his delegation was endorsing the latest liberal crusade: boycotting lettuce in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. McGovern’s tally was 1,864.95 to slightly over 1,000 for everyone else combined. The regulars fell into line. That was what regulars did. “There are two reasons that we are going to win this election,” boomed Oklahoma’s Carl Albert, the man who had done Mayor Daley’s bidding at the podium in 1968 in Chicago. “One is—George McGovern! The other is—Richard Nixon!”

The contenders dutifully stood hands raised together as the balloons dropped: Muskie, Chisholm, Scoop Jackson, Humphrey, who was flashing peace signs. But the 250 McGovern floor managers weren’t able to whip up the traditional resolution to make the nomination unanimous—something even Barry Goldwater had been able to manage. Too much water under the bridge for that. One hippie’s sign during the celebratory demonstration read simply mcgovern sucks! Another, a black man’s, said don’t vote ’72!

George McGovern was learning what a mess of pottage a presidential nomination could be when your defining trait was supposed to be your purity.

He would now learn how difficult it could be, too, to deliberate on important decisions during a convention in which sensitive debates wasted eleven hours straight.

He received a midnight call of congratulations from Ted Kennedy—still America’s favorite Democrat. McGovern asked him to be his running mate. Kennedy refused, citing “very personal reasons.” McGovern called Ribicoff. Ribicoff turned him down. The campaign had to come up with someone by 4 pm Thursday, the deadline for putting names in nomination. They started assembling a hasty list, which they hadn’t had time to do what with all the credentials fights and platform fights and assuaging meetings.

Leonard Woodcock, president of the United Auto Workers—a Catholic labor leader to earn back some white ethnics? (Then someone found out he hadn’t been to mass in twenty years.)

Patrick Lucey, governor of Wisconsin, also Catholic? (His wife, some people feared, was another Martha Mitchell.)

The names of senators and governors started flying: DNC chiefs, network anchormen, feminists, blacks, Father Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame (surely he still went to mass?).

They settled on Kevin White, mayor of Boston. Someone thought to clear the idea with Ted Kennedy. Kennedy called back two and a half hours before the deadline and said he wasn’t a fan. Kevin White was out.

A call went out to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a hero of the ecologists. Senator Nelson answered with a spousal veto and suggested Missouri’s young senator Thomas Eagleton, a Catholic with Kennedy looks and charm who came out of the Democrats’ blue-collar, urban-boss milieu. He was a friend of labor; maybe George Meany would take a shine to him.

Though no one knew much else about him.

Thomas Eagleton’s name had appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post but sixty-seven times since he’d become a senator in 1969. (Gaylord Nelson showed up six hundred times in the same span; Kennedy, almost four thousand.) But then there was the old saying: A running mate can’t help you, only hurt you. Maybe the obscurity was a plus. Someone heard he’d had an alcohol problem. They checked it out, and the reports were found lacking. McGovern personally placed the call; Eagleton said yes—before, he later quipped, McGovern had time to change his mind.

• • • • •

The 1972 Democratic National Convention concluded with what some thought was the greatest speech of George McGovern’s career. Unfortunately, it was delivered at 2:45 am. Only three million people saw it. Twenty million would watch Nixon’s acceptance speech in prime time a month and a half later. Plenty more had been watching hours earlier during the vice-presidential roll call, when two men wearing purple shirts reading gay power kissed in an aisle. Television cameramen have an eye for the peculiar. Though the vast majority of conventioneers looked utterly conventional, they dwelled on the likes of Beth Ann Labson, an eighteen-year-old California delegate, walking around without shoes. (“By 1976,” wrote Abbie and Jerry, “the convention will be held in a meadow.”) Larry O’Brien delivered a speech at the podium while, twenty feet below, Allen Ginsberg sat cross-legged, chanting mantras. Denim and tie-dyed T-shirts and peasant dresses; men carrying babies in papoose boards—and, the Post recorded in its article on the abortion floor debate, “girls in patched jeans and no bras.” A black man and a white woman kissing on camera. Interracial marriage had been illegal in some southern states until a Supreme Court decision only five years earlier.

Where were the sweaty, fat, bald men in suits and ties of yesteryear? The congressmen’s wives in evening gowns? The plump matrons in floral dresses dancing with banners and balloons? The broads in cheerleader outfits, Humphreyettes, Johnsonettes, Kennedyettes, Stevensonettes, Trumanettes—where were they? The only men dressed in Native American dress were . . . Native Americans.

These people were . . . the wrong kind of exuberant. They were dressed . . . the wrong kind of crazy. The colors were . . . the wrong kind of riotous. The women were . . . the wrong kind of sexy.

Gus Tyler, old-line leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, watched it back home on TV. Tyler was a socialist. He knew something about radical. He also knew something about people’s longing for security and stability. That was what had made him a socialist. He also thought he knew something about politics: There was no politics without accommodation. That was what made him a Democrat. He wondered what this all must look like to the farmer in Iowa, a housewife in Bensonhurst, “somebody out there,” he later reflected to an interviewer, “in Peoria.”

All of these people had given the Democrats a landslide in 1964. They had trusted the Democratic Party.

In the interim, they had seen America plunged into chaos.

And then they looked at this convention and thought, “Here are the people who are responsible for this chaos.”

• • • • •

McGovern retreated to South Dakota for a much-needed vacation, press corps in tow: “I made Harry Reasoner’s bed this morning,” a maid at the Hi-Ho Motel in Custer told a newspaper columnist. “It was not a big deal. It was like any bed.”

The press studied the latest Gallup finding: McGovern had gained only 2 points from Miami Beach—and even Goldwater had gained 20 points from his convention. The McGovern camp maintained its customary confidence, exchanging stories like the one about the North Dakota mayor who came to Miami complaining, “There are more hippies than mayors as delegates,” but left proudly sporting a McGovern pin, having discovered these hippies to be decent people worthy of his respect. It didn’t feel like Richard Nixon’s America. Even in this little town in the middle of nowhere, the kids looked as if they’d stepped out of Greenwich Village. Nineteen-year-old hotel maids—voting age!—talked about how they were thinking about moving into communes. A special ran on TV featuring Joe Cocker and Richie Havens—the bill from Woodstock, delivered straight into the living rooms of Custer, South Dakota.

Although choosing Custer as the billet for his vacation was not a good omen for someone entering the battle of a lifetime.

The reporters were bored and listless, thinking of packing it in. The candidate arrived late to a noon press conference Monday in a pine-paneled auditorium at a serene lakeside resort, uttered platitudes about what a pleasure it would be to work closely with them over the next three months. Thomas Eagleton took his turn at the podium—the boys weren’t even bothering to take notes—and told one of those silly loosening-up politician’s jokes. He looks a little like Jack Lemmon, some distractedly thought.

Then Eagleton switched to a quieter voice: “In political campaigning, it is part and parcel of that campaigning that there will be rumors about candidates. Rumors have followed me during my political career, dating back to when I first ran for office in 1956 . . .”

The press boys fumbled for their notebooks.

• • • • •

“Can you tell us what kind of psychiatric treatment you received?”

Barbara Eagleton, the loyal political wife, tried to hide her discomfort.

“Counseling from a psychiatrist, including electric shock.”

Well. That seemed a little . . . intense. Especially since George Stanley McGovern had just pronounced, “I am fully satisfied on the basis of everything I’ve learned about these brief hospital visits”—a month for nervous exhaustion was brief?—“that what is manifested in Senator Eagleton’s part was the good judgment to seek out medical care when he was exhausted.” Not telling McGovern he’d had electroshock therapy? What kind of judgment was that? “As far as I am concerned, there is no member of that Senate who is any sounder in mind, body, and spirit than Tom Eagleton. I am fully satisfied, and if I had known every detail that he discussed this morning . . . he still would have been my choice for vice president.”

If he had it to do over again, someone asked Eagleton, would he do it differently?

“Senator McGovern’s staff was aware, I believe, the night before my name was put in nomination, of the rumors . . . that were circulating on the floor of the convention, and they were satisfied as to my health.”

Telegrams to McGovern flooded in.

“after months of precinct work for your nomination we bitterly resent that you jeopardize our hope with eagleton. demand he resign.”

“while we understand your compassion, we strongly urge you to accept his immediate resignation.”

“do you want nut for vice president. drop eagleton.”

The problem being that the resort’s only working wire machine was in the pressroom. The reporters saw his supporters’ reaction before McGovern did. This did not make for effective strategizing.

The reporters pressed the McGovern flacks for answers. They replied with briefings about what the McGovern family had had for dinner. McGovern himself told an AP reporter he would have to “wait and see” the public’s reaction before making a decision. That mealymouthed quote was on the wires the next morning. The flacks put out a statement claiming McGovern had been misunderstood, that he was “one thousand percent for Tom Eagleton.”

Richard Nixon, or Lyndon Johnson for that matter, would have known better; they wouldn’t go on the record as being more than 98 percent certain the sun would rise in the east the next morning.

Poor George McGovern. He was still getting messages out in the press that his vice-presidential candidate should quit and save face, just as the Eisenhower people had in 1952. But just like Nixon, Eagleton bluffed the boss—though with a liberal’s sort of bluff: Go ahead and fire me. Show the world you have no compassion.

Reporters noticed Checkers-speech parallels. One asked Eagleton whether he would go on television to defend himself. He replied, “I won’t put my family on television,” adding, “We have a dog, too, called Pumpkin.” He appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, said he’d be meeting with McGovern the next night, and that as far as he was concerned, “I’m going to stay on the ticket. That’s my firm, irrevocable intent.”

The next morning, the new issues of Time and Newsweek came out, Eagleton on the covers, looking moist-eyed, unshaven—and sympathetic (“McGovern’s First Crisis” displaced Time’s Olympic preview: “Munich: Where the Good Times Are”). McGovern didn’t help his own case. “If we took a poll and 99 percent of the people thought he should stay on the ticket, that other 1 percent could still be crucial,” he was quoted telling Time—some antipolitician. The liberal St. Louis Post-Dispatch called him “spineless.”

Adding insult to injury, Time reported its own survey: 76.7 percent said Eagleton’s medical record wouldn’t affect their vote. Time also noted, “An almost Mafia-like atmosphere developed amid the rustic charms of McGovern’s retreat.” They reported that, according to Eagleton, McGovern had told him that though he “had been under pressure” to fire him, “he’s one thousand percent behind me.” And that McGovern, like some Tammany hack filling out a “balanced ticket,” was considering only Roman Catholics. (They didn’t report what had happened the previous week at McGovern headquarters in Los Angeles: All thirty phone lines were cut by vandals.)

The wheels were off the bus. The Democratic pros who’d been telling him since the press conference to cut Eagleton loose now said he had no choice: Donors had stopped sending checks. McGovern performed the execution at close range, standing next to the martyr at a press conference, now at the height of his sympathy from the public. Then McGovern requested time on all three networks the next night to explain himself. All three networks refused.

George McGovern also owned a dog. His name was Atticus—as in Atticus Finch, the saintly lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. But we live in a fallen world. The saintly don’t survive in politics. “In the Democratic primaries, Senator McGovern managed to convey the impression that he was somehow not a politician in the customary sense,” James Naughton wrote in the New York Times. “His reaction to Mr. Eagleton’s disclosure may have seriously impaired that image.”

Excerpted from Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. Copyright © 2008 by Rick Perlstein. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Inc.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill & Wang, 2001).