The Republican line of attack against George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, was devastatingly simple: He was the candidate of acid, abortion and amnesty.
McGovern, a former World War II bomber pilot and senator from South Dakota, never thought the line would stick. And he was confident that the largely unpopular war in Vietnam would help sink Richard Nixon’s reelection efforts.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I thought it was so ridiculous it wasn’t worthy of an answer,” said McGovern, 87, in a recent interview with msnbc.com. “I was in that kind of mode: People know I’m a trustworthy person, they know I’m a patriot. Well they didn’t know those things.”
McGovern said he should have done more to fight back.
“If somebody makes you look like a fool, you’ve got to answer it. I think Democrats in the past, myself included, probably underestimated the impact of negative campaigning,” he said.
In his campaign against McGovern, Nixon positioned himself as the more mainstream candidate, part of the so-called “silent majority” of Americans fed up with the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.
He went on to win in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. presidential history, netting more than 60 percent of the popular vote and taking every state but Massachusetts. In the process, he forged a template for how future GOP candidates could take advantage of cultural divisions that emerged from the turbulent 1960s.
“[W]e keep having that election over and over again,” said Rick Perlstein, author of "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America." It was the “first election of many that was structured as a referendum of meaning on the 1960s.”
Perlstein said Nixon was able to pry away two traditionally reliable Democratic constituencies – white ethic voters in northern cities and southern conservatives – by painting Democrats as the party of surrender in Vietnam and liberal social values at home. Those two groups have trended Republican ever since.
Pat Buchanan, a Nixon speechwriter at the time, was one of the chief architects of Nixon’s strategy.
“The entire strategy was to convert it into a referendum on the president of the United States. Do you support the president? And not even to mention McGovern’s name,” Buchanan said. “We just had him overwhelmed with resources. …McGovern was completely frustrated and flustered by it.”
One of Buchanan’s main responsibilities was to craft the talking points and speeches that went out to top Nixon surrogates.
“We targeted Catholics with our position on right-to-life as opposed to the massive amnesty abortion position of McGovern. We targeted veterans because one of the central issues was the Vietnam War,” said Buchanan, now an MSNBC political analyst.
“The country was really divided. By then we were well into the culture wars,” he said. “Agnew [the vice president] and Nixon were considered middle-Americans who represented the boys in Vietnam and traditional values.”
Despite presiding over an unpopular war, Nixon earned some breathing room by reducing the number of troops in Vietnam and making inroads with two foreign adversaries: He initiated high-level talks with China and negotiated an arms treaty with the Soviet Union.
Nixon also pulled every lever he could to get the economy moving in a favorable direction. This included imposing wage and price controls and, as Buchanan put it, “gunning” the money supply. “The engine was going so loud you could hear it,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan believes McGovern made it easy for Republicans to paint the Democratic nominee as removed from the mainstream. They did this by criticizing his calls to leave Vietnam quickly, to create a welfare program that would give $1,000 to every man, woman and child, and to slash military spending.
“McGovern at one point said, ‘I would crawl on my knees to get the POWs back.’ Americans didn’t want to crawl on their knees in those days,” Buchanan said.
McGovern was surprised his military background didn’t inoculate him to the attacks.
“I tried to convince the public that we needed to take a more critical look at spending on the Pentagon,” McGovern said. “And that got me labeled as weak on defense, notwithstanding the fact I was a decorated bomber pilot from World War II and I think Nixon was a clerk of some kind far away from any guns.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given the fact it later forced Nixon from office, the Watergate scandal played almost no role in the 1972 election.
While the initial break-in took place months before the November vote and the cover-up consumed parts of Nixon’s political apparatus, the burgeoning scandal was dismissed by the White House and mostly ignored by the public.
In fact, one poll at the time suggested voters widely believed that Nixon was more trustworthy than McGovern.
“I remember that poll and being shocked by it,” McGovern said. He attributes the trust gap to the abrupt removal of his running mate just days after his selection. The decision followed Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton's admission that he had been treated for depression with electroshock therapy.
Buchanan doesn’t think there’s much McGovern could have done differently to win the election.
“I don’t think he made many mistakes. To win the nomination he went hard left,” Buchanan said of McGovern. “And he went that far left because that’s where the energy and the fire were with the youth and the Democratic Party. But once you’re over there, you’ve got to get back to the center. And our job was not to let him get back to the center, which was what we accomplished.”
While Perlstein, the historian, thinks the GOP came up with a new template for success in 1972, McGovern believes Democrats may have learned some lessons from his defeat.
“If [Clinton] was criticized even in the slightest he had a release on the wire in 30 minutes responding to it. I think he learned that working for me in 1972,” McGovern said. “So if the Republicans learned some things and applied them in 1972, I think Democrats are beginning to understand that they have to be more sensitive to criticisms and quicker to respond.”
Despite being on the losing side of one of the biggest landslides in presidential history, McGovern said the election left him with just one regret.
“I can take the defeat. I’d had defeats before that,” he said. “But the hardest thing for me to live with since 1972 has been the feeling that the American people didn’t really get an accurate reading either on Nixon or me. I think they had two twisted and distorted views of the kind of person I am and the kind of president I would have made, and I think they had a mistaken view of Nixon, as Watergate later demonstrated.”