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As the last of four successive accounts of presidential campaigns linked by their titles and author, "The Making Of The President 1972" is a remarkable end note to a series that places writer Theodore H. White at the vanguard of his subject, the Bruce Catton of campaign historians. But was the 1972 race worthy of his eloquence?
People generally agree that Richard Nixon's election in 1968, however understandable in the context of the times, was a misstep in American history. As president, he angered liberals, alienated moderates, embarrassed conservatives, widened the generation gap, and deepened the malaise it took 10 more years for the U.S. to recover from. If 1968's Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, had won and appointed a tough Henry Kissinger-like statesman to run foreign policy, the nation would have been better off.
It's far less popular to embrace the concept of Nixon's losing to his 1972 rival, Sen. George McGovern. In part that's because Nixon in 1972 was doing well with Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union, and it was a dangerous time to change horses. Also, McGovern was too much of a left-wing stooge.
White makes a convincing, often entertaining case for McGovern's ineptitude in his book, like the ridiculous battles McGovernites undertook at their convention to chip away their party's own elected delegates and replace them with a higher proportion of women and minorities. Even with the specter of Watergate arising in the last days before the election, Nixon was seen as the wiser choice to liberals like White and some of Humphrey's top supporters. Not only did McGovern alienate centrists with his dogma, he was fatally unable to stick by people who stuck by him, like the running mate McGovern declared himself "1000 percent" behind just before dumping him. White even pokes holes at McGovern's "St. George" image with anecdotes of the Senator's double dealings.
To no one's surprise, Nixon blew McGovern away that November, by 61 percent to 38 percent in the popular vote, and sweeping the electoral vote except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Even McGovern's home state of South Dakota went with Nixon by eight percentage points.
White thought it could have been a bigger blowout: "Had it not been for Watergate, it is quite possible that Richard Nixon's margin would have been increased by another three to four million votes," adding that the state vote totals for senate races were often higher than the votes for president, suggesting some disillusionment with both candidates.
Why is "Making Of The President 1972" still worth your time more than 30 years on? In part it's because the McGovern candidacy was an important one, with resonance in today's political scene. The Democrats are still divided between their moderates and true believers, and this was their equivalent of what the 1964 race was for the GOP, when Barry Goldwater sounded the trumpet for his party's ideologues in a way that would echo through history.
But mainly it's because White was the great one when it came to political writing. Without hyperbole or vitriol, he manages to create a galloping narrative that always takes the high road, a feat difficult then and almost unimaginable today. He also gives some of the most concise word portraits of characters like McGovern and Nixon (who sharply corrects White at one point when the writer complements him on his office's yellow decor: "We call it gold.")
The matter of Watergate, too, is presented effectively if incompletely (the scandal was still a year from resolution when White's book went to press.) "A good clipping service would have provided the Committee to Re-Elect with more information than any number of wire-taps," White marvels. It's amazing not so much how Nixon broke the law (he wasn't the first or last president that way) but for the sheer lack of necessity involved.
At one point, White espies a slogan on a wall: "Winning's Not Everything, It's The Only Thing." Alas, as Nixon would learn, this isn't always so.
on November 2, 2012
"In Delaware, a Democratic county committeeman told her friends, `The only way to save this party is for us to lose big.' "
As we approach Election Day, 2012, it is instructive to learn from the past what is transpiring before our eyes today because, as George Santayana famously said, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." What better place to start than Theodore White's classic The Making of the President, 1972? Richard Nixon was a conservative willing to swing to the middle, a Mitt Romney trait, who understood - despite serious character flaws - the intricacies of campaign politics as well as any President. White chronicled campaigns over the course of many years, imparting lessons used by countless political consultants who veered from his wisdom at their peril. Early on in the book White describes Nixon, trying to find traction with the American public in the wake of the 1970 Cambodian invasion and subsequent Kent State shootings. He is fighting an opposition Congress and has little to show in the way of big successes with the 1970 mid-terms, his 1972 re-election campaign looming.
"For the first time in a decade, so reported economists, there had been no real gain in 1970 in the purchasing power of an average American family," wrote White. "Six percent of all Americans, as 1971 opened, were without work, the highest number in 12 years . . . spreading ripples of worry from their families through communities . . .
"Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American people have assumed that the President is, ultimately, in charge of the economy - of bread-and-butter, and of jobs. It was, thus, up to Mr. Nixon to do something . . ."
The "political implications were clear in 1970," continued White. "Early that year, Nixon told a group of Republican leaders that if he didn't bring unemployment down below a rate of 5.5 percent, the Republicans would lose in the November elections." The budgetary decisions he made would determine the jobless rate in 1972 and, if he did not produce lower unemployment, he too would be out of a job. President Nixon indeed did improve the jobs numbers, and he won in a landslide.
5.5 percent! Compare that to President Barack Obama, who presided over an unemployment rate between 11 and eight percent. In the summer of 2011, even his apologists determined that if he did not markedly improve the unemployment statistic by Labor Day of 2012, Obama had no shot at re-election. Obama, as if he too had just read Theodore White's book, stated that if he did not improve the economy it was a "one-term proposition" because "I will be held accountable." Labor Day came and went, yet the unemployment rate was barely changed. Now, in mid-October, former Massachusetts Governor Romney leads President Obama by seven points in the Gallup poll. There is simplicity to this, as former Bill Clinton advisor James Carville once stated: "It's the economy, stupid!" Indeed, is this all there is? Is a lifetime of reading, of learning, of analysis, prayer, philosophy, mere background noise to such a mundane - and cyclical thing - as the unemployment rate?
Obama was a truly historical moment, yet here he is on the verge of embarrassment and historical dislocation courtesy of such mundanity. George H.W. Bush thought himself a Rushmore member of the Ronald Reagan legacy, a ruler of a New World Order that sent Soviet Communism to the "dustbin of history," but an Arkansas huckster and a Texas tech billionaire chopped down his Caesar-like status. Not exactly long knives on Rome's Senate steps, but it was the end either way. So, it is a temptation to say that after White addresses the Nixon economy, found early in chapter three ("The View from Key Biscayne," page 48), there is nothing more to glean. Common sense and curiosity lead the reviewer to conclude that indeed history does offer greater lessons than Labor Department statistics.
First, White's fourth Making of the President volume centers on the Shakespearean tragedy of Richard Nixon. Obviously he was covered in his earlier volumes, which included his epic loss to John Kennedy (1960) and equally epic comeback, when Nixon defeated not only Hubert Humphrey but the ghosts of JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the entire notion of the 1960s, eight years later. But this was Nixon's moment, and of course his downfall via Watergate, which is covered by White not in full (it went to press before the resignation), but perhaps because it was not a fait accompli yet, White's writing is infused with an extra dose of moral caution.
White and Nixon. This is something we really do not see anymore. There have been no political giants since Reagan left office in 1989. With the passing of David Halberstam, journalism is a shabby art. Bob Woodward and George Will remain, but these men did not straddle the times as did White, Edward R. Murrow, William Shirer. Even Bill Clinton himself declared at his 1994 funeral that his was "the age of Nixon," and so too was it White's. White wrote for Henry Luce. Their epic confrontation, in which White refused to be bulled over, was detailed in Halberstam's marvelous The Powers That Be (1979). It may have resulted in the Communist takeover of China by Mao Tse-tung; Luce arguing that White's exposing Chiang Kai-shek's corruption would lose the cause. What writer today has such power?
White became a cause célèbre, the man who wrote of JFK's "Camelot," the chronicler of what Luce himself called the "American Century." He was of the Left, "radicalized" by the Great Depression according to Halberstam, but given total access by his subjects, half in awe, half admiring of his prowess, undoubtedly all humbled by the fact that they were worthy of this giant of letters. Nixon understood history as well as any of the Presidents, and gave White thorough time and respect. It was typical of the Californian, a man in search of love and respect, yet he never achieves either; not from the elites of society and culture, not from the press, and not from Theodore White. Respect, yes. White stated that (despite his stated liberalism) if Nixon's Presidency could have ended at a snapshot moment - the release of the POWS and the end of the Vietnam War in early 1973 - his place in history would indeed be of Rushmore status. But White was like the denizens of the Manhattan social hierarchy controlled by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who gave Nixon an occasional invite but never acceptance. Thus did Watergate seem to be an inevitable chapter straight out of King Lear.
First, White's ability. Cultural anthropologists will tell you the word artists of the era were the authors of New Journalism and gonzo, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, or the Hollywood brats making The Godfather and Chinatown. Fair enough, but White, like Halberstam, Norman Mailer and few others, could make the written word jump off the page with such descriptive affect as to mesmerize. If Wolfe wrote non-narrative non-fiction like a novel, White wrote it like poetry, capturing the essence of the scenes he covered; the crowds in Ohio, the changing of the season, the pageantry of politics, but also the feelings expressed in the hopeful faces of the Nixonians (blue collar, searching for a return to a mythical America) or the McGovernites (the poney-tailed young, the last vestiges of '60 idealism) embodied by James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams.
"I was the East Coast distributor of `involved," Jones's Terry Mann says, adding that after "they elected `Tricky Dick' twice . . ." all hope was lost. As White takes us into the Watergate scandal, we get the same sense, only from a Right-wing perspective. Read 40 years later, two things stand out. First, all hope was lost. This was the apex of Republican ascendancy, not merely an electoral win but victory over an evil, the entire decade of discontent that was the Vietnam `60s. Here is Nixon's worst betrayal, not just to America but to conservatism, left dead in the water. There was no way this way of thinking could rebound, but history tells us Reagan did indeed happen. Now, more than 20 years after his departure, it sometimes seems that he too was a brief, shining light in the darkness, yet as bad as the post-TARP deficit is, as down as we are, somehow those of us who refuse to give up look at the shiny Mitt Romney, he of a muscular form of Mormonism that considers America the Promised Land, the Constitution divinely inspired, and wonder if indeed such a comeback can be had. But if Romney and the conservatives do not learn the lessons of history, they will deserve to fall as well.
Despite the fact that White, the eminence grise of American journalism, was given all this access to the Democrat campaigns, and the Nixon effort, from the early Primaries to the post-mortem, he writes as if a fly on the wall. This reminds of Roger Angell, a great baseball scribe who covered games not from the press box, but from the stands where he sat with his teenage daughter. Despite his well-known proclivities in favor of the Democrats, for the most part he has the gift of non-partisanship, or at the least a style so admirable that the Republican is willing to forgive him his trespasses. However, there is one aspect of his reportage that goes too far and must be criticized.
White identifies Nixon's base as those Out There. Nixon himself called them the "silent majority" in 1968. White clearly delineates who they are, and in reading this, we get a picture of a time in America that is no more; yet here is the essence of what the modern conservative movement is begging to recapture. Watergate, the social media, and cynicism born of immorality at every level makes such a thing unattainable, but here is the thing driving this hardy group of Americans - not Europeans, uniquely Americans - on a holy quest they probably will never get to.
1972 was the last year of Vietnam. The chasm this war created in America was incalculable. Right now, those who came of age during this time are the elite political class of America. Until they are dead and gone, this chasm will remain. "Nixon's people" were the product of the Greatest Generation, those who fought and won World War II. Their pride and love for America as it ascended to the highest peak on the mountain top of history was beyond any previous patriotism in Great Britain, France or . . . anywhere. Then came the utter shock to the system; a war not going our way, the young going off the deep end in a morass of drugs, abortion, free sex, rock music; literally in the mind's of many the work of an actual Satan loosed on the world. Thus, the seeking of a white knight, and in Nixon, to quote the title of Tom Whicker's biography of him, they found One of Us.
Nixon stood for all they believed in, the most pure of American faiths: God, country, apple pie. This was still a highly prevalent concept in 1972. It was the last year of innocence. Watergate destroyed it. Reagan's America was a punch back, but by then cynicism and outright contempt for the Left had settled in. Nixon's people were appalled at the protestors, the hippies spitting on their sons returning from Vietnam, and sought validation, absolution. Nixon gave it to them.
But White goes too far when he compares America, 1972 with Germany, 1934. He straddles Berlin in the 1920s side-by-side with Washington, D.C. Berlin was a place of avante garde thinking as described in the Broadway hit Cabaret. Adolf Hitler garnered his support in White's idea of Germany's Out There: the hinterlands, particularly rural Bavaria. The sticks. So too did Nixon gain no traction with the intelligentsia of D.C., Manhattan and Beverly Hills, but with the common folk, the South, the farmers . . . This is reprehensible, for these are precisely the people who stormed Omaha Beach, saving the world, and for good measure the Jewish Theodore White's butt, from 1,000 years of darkness. Furthermore White, for all his perceptions somehow fails to see the difference between rugged individualism, the essence of the post-Barry Goldwater conservative revolution (and Nixon's base all the way), with a political ideology stripping its citizenry of guns, while running all-encompassing Big Government actually called National Socialism.
1972 was also the year the South officially went Republican. It started in 1966, when Congress went to the GOP post-Great Society. Nixon was said to have won in 1968 using the "Southern strategy," which liberals having always called racist but White is too smart for that. But in 1972, George Wallace was shot and Nixon consolidated his base. The issue was bussing, almost forgotten today but incredibly divisive. When trying to understand how any political figure of any stripe can win 61 percent of the vote and 49 states, this is the answer.
It was similar to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when he managed to coalesce a disparate electorate into a single bloc voting for him: white Southerners still holding onto their Democrat Party tradition; grateful blacks happy to receive handouts and the voting franchise; and Vietnam War hawks. Nixon called his coalition the "new majority." Nobody outside of a few blacks cottoned to bussing, the antithesis of the American Dream, intrusive Big Government at its most insidious. We are talking about our k
ids. The hops and dreams invested in Nixon in turning back the tide of the Great Society cannot be overemphasized, and were recreated in large measure with the Tea Party movement of 2010.
Between Nixon and Reagan, the South went lock step Republican. Nixon literally husbanded them from their racist ways into the mainstream of American politics. If one believes in a God and destiny, one might invest some faith that this indeed was his purpose on Earth. The turning of the Southern tide is particularly discomfiting to the Left in that a study of it reveals Platonic political science, which the Greek thought could be rendered into a form removing opinion and replacing it with undeniable logic. Thus we see in the South a region that, for all years they were dumb, uneducated and racist, voted Democrat. By the 1970s, their hollows had electricity, their kids had shoes, they could read and write' they possessed knowledge. Suddenly enlightened, no longer dumb, uneducated and racist, they voted Republican. This is almost a scientific analysis determining the superiority of conservatism. Between college football, Christianity and Democracy, their hearts and minds softened and, within a very short period, say eight years, made a swifter change for the better than any region in all global history. They were not forced into it by a conquering army or Reconstructionist government, but by their own free will, always the best motivator. They were the heart of Nixon's "new majority" and they loved him.
Nixon especially loved them back because he was so hated by the ruling class of whatever club he tried to ascend to. His work ethic, his skills and accomplishments always granted him a grudging invite, but he felt their stings. White plainly reports a new Republican voter. No longer are they the country clubbers of the Rockefeller Northeast. They are the most American of Americans. In the average people of the plains, which frankly is everywhere from Burbank to Buffalo, he was truly loved, which makes his later downfall not just tragic for him, but for them. He let them down. They gave him all they had and he let them down.
White also captures the hatred the McGovernites had for him. McGovern himself
made no bones about it: Nixon was a war criminal, a tyrant. His people marched to that tune with all they had, but the stunning realization that they were such a tiny majority of this great nation was an added shock. Nixon had consolidated America even more thoroughly - and with far more lasting results - than LBJ in '64. This was the magic of Reagan, taking this tattered coalition and reviving them eight years later. If a Republican can ever get California back into the GOP fold the Democrats would splinter into a third party.
But of course there was Watergate, which White reserves particular moral outrage over. By the time he sent his book to the editor the essential facts were known, but White in his inimitable style tells us of its unique incubation. He envisions Nixon, agonizing over leaks and the Pentagon Papers, wondering metaphorically a la the King of England, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Suddenly G. Gordon Liddy emerges, a modern knight filled with wild ideas - prostitutes at the Democrat National Convention, the assassination of Washington Post muckraker Jack Anderson, the bugging of a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, and ultimately Watergate. White postulates that while on the one hand the Republicans had it won big by June of 1972, Nixon was so paranoid over Teddy Kennedy, fearing repeat of the 1960 "stolen" election, that he was driven beyond reason to push his troops to acts of criminality. White also details how Nixon's obsession with destroying McGovern and winning not just by a landslide, but by a mandate meant to humiliate, that he failed to provide the support, monetary and otherwise, to push his party's Congressional coattails.
But late in the book, examining the inevitable defeat of McGovern amid dreary headquarters staff workers, he quotes one low level Democratic county committeeman: "The only way to save this party is for us to lose big."
This seems to have the ring of great truth. It certainly applies to the Republicans, who only by exposing their most Right-wing tendencies gave themselves the courage after first losing in the Goldwater debacle to rise like a Phoenix bird not once but several times. The Democrats really did not "win for losing" despite Jimmy Carter's triumph four years later. Watergate was a gift and that was that. But for better or worse, the party turned severely Leftward in 1972 and never looked back. What McGovern wrought they are today. If Romney wins, the result of this will be the GOP seven, the Democrats four since that campaign, and a referendum on their choice.