If you enter the ground floor of the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library and locate the microform room (in the back left corner), you can find buried deep in the stacks a 35 mm reel labeled, “Washington Post – Aug. 8-15, 1973.” After loading it onto a ScanPro2000 microfilm reader you will also find, wedged in between depressing reports on inflating food prices and the Vietnam War, an op-ed penned by George S. McGovern, then a U.S. Senator from South Dakota. The article is titled, “The Importance of Being a Landslide Loser.”
Nine months earlier, in November 1972, as the Democratic Party presidential nominee, McGovern had indeed proven himself a “landslide loser” – getting drubbed at the polls by a margin over twenty percentage points on election day by incumbent president Richard Nixon.
Projecting on microfilm McGovern’s humble and largely forgotten words gives us a glimpse not only of George McGovern himself – Robert F. Kennedy once said he was “the only decent man in the Senate” – but also the hope he held for American democracy during one of its darker hours: Watergate. To McGovern, the “Importance of Being a Landslide Loser” lay in the reforms that would surely follow from the fallout of a sitting president’s involvement in illegal activity on a stunning scale.
McGovern suggested that without Nixon’s victory in 1972 – and McGovern’s own loss – this collective revelation would not be possible. He “concluded that the shattering Nixon landslide, and the even more shattering experience of the corruption that surrounded him, have done more than I could have done in victory to awaken the nation to … the ‘degradation of the democratic dogma.’”
Unfortunately, neatly packaged celluloid reels lined up in the same stacks where McGovern’s op-ed rests also contain film of newspapers published since 1973. And it is the information in those reels – the accumulated daily record of American life up to our present – which suggest that McGovern, ever the optimist, was dead wrong about what awaited the American people in the decades following Watergate.
What began in June 1972 – now almost forty years ago – with a group of burglars caught photographing documents and bugging the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., had by the summer of 1973 snowballed (thanks in large part to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s coverage in the Washington Post) into a massive congressional investigation and television spectacle that connected the White House to that burglary. In a succession of escalating reveals, Americans learned of the systemic corruption and abuse of power that defined Nixon administration, disclosures that went beyond one late-spring night at the Watergate.
McGovern recounted the expanding scope of the Nixon administration’s misdeeds in his Post op-ed:
“burglarizing the private files of an opponent, … perverting the FBI, wiretapping telephones, secretly taping the words of everyone who speaks to the President in person or by phone, hiring obnoxious phony demonstrators to pose as supporters of the other side, repeatedly and flagrantly violating the campaign finance laws, … disrupting and discrediting citizens who seek honest political debate – and so on, ad nauseam, as each week adds new shame to a list of abuses so shocking that nothing new seems to shock anymore.”
In this context, McGovern looked to the future. He believed that Watergate would force “the country to reexamine the reality of our electoral process.” Campaigns especially would be run differently in the post-Watergate world. He wrote: “the prospects for further restrictions on private campaign financing, full disclosure of the personal finances of candidates, and public finance of all federal campaigns seem to me better than ever.” He also foresaw future limits on the prerogatives of “executive secrecy,” the establishment of “full and open debate between the candidates,” and “no-holds-barred press conferences” with candidates and elected officials.
McGovern thought that the shock of Watergate while the “king … [was] still on the throne” would also redirect the focus of the media and the public away from “what is irrelevant, peripheral or secondary in importance” during campaigns and legislative sessions, and push press coverage towards the substantive issues facing the country. He contrasted the press treatment of his own campaign missteps during 1972 (selecting a running mate with a history of nervous breakdowns and who had received electroshock therapy, for example), with Nixon’s seemingly easy evasion of tough questions on the war in Vietnam, the economy, and Watergate itself. McGovern conceded that though “we made too many mistakes in the fall [campaign of 1972] … few people will contend anymore that they were more critical to the country than the issues we tried to discuss, with so little success, and without a real response from the other side.”
I don’t want to beat up on George McGovern (who is, by the way, still writing and publishing at the age of 89). Congress did, in fact, pass campaign finance and financial disclosure laws in the wake of Watergate, and the scandal certainly generated anti-incumbent sentiment among voters in the 1974 and 1976 congressional elections. Still, it hardly seems necessary to point out that McGovern’s tripartite hope for the rebirth of democracy through honest debate, the curtailment of money in electoral politics, and a critical issues-oriented press has not been fulfilled since Watergate.
Writing now, in April 2012, it is clear that decades of “infotainment” and horse-race television coverage of the presidential campaigns, the dramatic enlargement of private campaign financing (only accentuated further by the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision), and a decimated press system have further conscribed democracy in the United States, to say nothing of the effects of increased income inequality that have marked the years since the 1970s.
Over the coming weeks and months, as the fortieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in approaches, we are likely to be confronted in the media with tales of redemption and left with the impression that Watergate was this one time when American politics almost went over the edge. But if we think about what George McGovern anticipated would come in the wake of Watergate then it becomes difficult to keep the scandal in the past and even harder to be sanguine about our present.
The structural problems that led to Watergate – especially executive overreach, private campaign dollars, and a subservient press – continue to degrade our democracy, if not always in as spectacularly obvious ways. Until we tackle them head on, though, George McGovern’s dream that “democracy may once again become a conviction we keep and not just a description we apply to ourselves” will remain unfulfilled. And as a nation we will continue to endure as our own kind of “landslide losers.”
— Kevin Brown, for History for the Future, April 28, 2012