George McGovern provides the beer on a long ago sunny summer morning
With all the election shenanigans in this for-the-ages presidential race, it’s a great time to track down a thoroughly twisted historical document at your local library.
“Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” is the collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s dispatches from Richard M. Nixon’s re-election victory over George McGovern. It’s still hilarious after all these years and I make a point of re-reading it every presidential cycle.
It was the year that the “youth vote” was going to swing the election for the liberal Democratic challenger. The Vietnam War and its attendant draft was still in full bloody swing and to me, a wide-eyed college freshman that fall, it seemed that the tide had finally turned.
Alas, after a divisive primary process, McGovern’s vice presidential pick, Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri, survived McGovern’s vetting process, only to later admit that he had received electroshock treatments.
Thompson, who early in 1972 suggested that Hubert Humphrey — the Democratic former vice president under Lyndon Johnson who was the losing presidential candidate in 1968 — be jammed into a bottle and thrown into the Pacific Ocean, also wrote that “When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional.”
The youth vote never appeared that November. Nixon won more than 47 million popular votes and 520 electoral votes. McGovern scored 29 million popular votes and a minuscule 17 electoral votes. Like this year, 270 electoral votes were needed. For comparison, in 2012 President Barack Obama won 332 electoral votes, to Mitt Romney’s 206.
Thompson spent most of the election season on the road, following the candidates while rooting for McGovern. Maybe the best two scenes involved a one-on-one interview with Nixon in which Thompson agreed to only talk about football; and a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations for a “spontaneous” floor demonstration at the ’72 GOP convention.
“The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about ‘new politics’ and ‘honesty in government,’ is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon,” Thompson wrote.
McGovern got the Pyrrhic last laugh. Nixon resigned in disgrace during the summer of 1974, for his part in the cover-up of the break-in at Democratic National headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building in June, 1972.
Alas, one of his late-career investments, as owner of the former Stratford Inn hotel and conference across from the Sikorsky factory on the Housatonic River, cost him more than he gained. In 1988, McGovern invested his savings from the 15 years of lectures after the ’72 debacle. Connecticut, as usual, was in recession and, McGovern admitted later, he had no business experience. It went bankrupt in 1990 and closed in 1991.
For some reason, the softball team I was playing with at the time obtained the Stratford Inn as its sponsor. Incredibly, the rules of the Sunday morning league included the requirement that the home team provide a half-keg of beer, which had to be tapped and flowing before the first pitch.
McGovern, his wife Eleanor and her elderly mother stopped by one sunny summer Sunday morning to watch the guys in the Stratford Inn shirts and hats. In one of the more-bizarre receiving lines I’ve even been part of, McGovern, the South Dakota legend, in his Sunday-go-to-meeting suit, walked over, shook hands and took a whiff of our beer breath.
I was one of the younger guys on the team and, fortunately, had missed becoming draft bait by one year. Everyone was polite and further details of the game itself are mercifully lost to time.
When the Democratic National Committee held its 1992 nominating convention in New York City, I wrangled a ticket to a party held in commemoration of McGovern’s ’72 campaign. It was in a midtown club called Tatou. At one point I was standing at the bar next to broadcast icon Dan Schorr, himself a member of Nixon’s White House enemies list, a red badge of courage for media types. The 20 people on the list even included the liberal movie star Paul Newman of Westport.
Later, as the accolades were finished and the crowd was thinning out, I found myself heading for the door, McGovern right beside me. With a smile, I reminded him of the Stratford Inn softball team. I told him that I was probably the only guy on the team who voted for him, but most of the other guys had been in Vietnam at the time and voted for Nixon. He did not smile.
Schorr died in 2010 at 93. McGovern, 93, died in 2012. Newman expired in 2008 at 83; and Thompson died in 2005 at 67, a suicide.
Ken Dixon’s Capitol View appears Sundays in the Hearst Connecticut Newspapers. You may reach him in the Capitol at 860-549-4670 or at email@example.com. Find him at twitter.com/KenDixonCT. His Facebook address is kendixonct.hearst. Dixon’s Connecticut Blog-o-rama can be seen at blog.ctnews.com/dixon/