Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 1, 2012

Phil Power: McGovern was an education

BY PHIL POWER, Columnist

---- — Last week's news that George McGovern, the longtime South Dakota senator and presidential candidate had died triggered a flash of memories going back to the terrible summer of 1968.

I was pulled back to memories of the war in Vietnam, political turmoil, violent street protest, assassinations.

Although I admired President Lyndon Johnson in many ways, I could not support his position on the war. So when Bobby Kennedy, who hated LBJ (and who was heartily hated in return) launched his insurgent campaign on March 16, I signed up.

Johnson unexpectedly announced his withdrawal from the race on March 31. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4. At that awful time it seemed to me (and many others) that Bobby Kennedy might be able to bring the country together, as he was the one force who could appeal to blue collar working people, blacks, liberals and even some conservatives.

I had gone to my parents' home to celebrate my father's birthday on June 4th. Early on the morning of the 5th, my mother came into my bedroom in tears.

"Bobby Kennedy has been shot!" Oh, my God! The next day, he died without ever regaining consciousness.

Ten weeks later, I decided to go to Chicago to cover the Democratic National Convention. At that time, I was publisher of a small group of newspapers, and I figured I might as well be on the scene for what might be a defining moment in American history.

When I got there, the streets of Chicago were jammed with armed Chicago police and Illinois National Guardsmen.

Things calmed down a bit when the lights in the hall were dimmed and a memorial film on Bobby Kennedy was played. In a dispatch from Chicago to my newspapers, I wrote:

"It was an enormous, spontaneous and, at the start, dignified outpouring of genuine emotion and respect, intensified by the fact that on this matter the convention could be submerged in a common feeling. Rep. Carl Albert (the Speaker of the House, who was in the chair) evidently misread the nature of the outpouring and tried to gavel it to a halt. It didn't work.

He tried again, and again. A fourth time.

And suddenly the convention came very near to going completely out of control. The demonstration turned into a vast act of defiance against those who lacked the common sense to handle the convention in a humane manner "¦ For in that vast hall of people clapping and crying and singing was sounding the death knell of the old-style political system."

The convention ultimately rejected McGovern, who had gotten in the race as a last-minute stand-in for those Kennedy delegates who did not want to vote for his chief anti-war rival that year, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy. McGovern went on to chair a party commission that changed radically the party rules, reducing the power of the old pols in the smoke-filled room.

Four years later, that system worked to make McGovern the nominee. But he ran one of the all-time most inept campaigns, and ended up losing in one of history's greatest landslides.

The old pols' power was largely replaced by the system of primary elections that today are the main device for selecting candidates.

At the time, these changes were hailed by most (including me) as valuable ways to open up the party and make it more democratic. But as time has passed, I've come to feel that primary elections are lousy ways to pick candidates.

The old bulls who used to inhabit the smoke-filled rooms knew very well the candidates, their weaknesses and strengths. Their power depended on making informed choices between the candidates. It's been usurped by clever marketing, sound bites and TV ads of the sort we're experiencing in this year's election, nearly half a century after the bitter chaos of Chicago.

Back in 1968 on the convention floor, I saw McGovern as a reformer, the successor to Robert Kennedy. Today, in 2012, I think of him as a good and decent man who unknowingly and unintentionally changed American politics for the worse.

Phil Power is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank.