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Anatomy Of A Blowout,
This review is from: The Making of the President, 1972: A Narrative History of American Politics in Action (Hardcover)
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.