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Appreciation

George McGovern’s indelible mark on Massachusetts politics

Senator John F. Kennedy, accompanied by George McGovern, campaigned in June 1960 in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Associated Press Files

Senator John F. Kennedy, accompanied by George McGovern, campaigned in June 1960 in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts.”

Tucked away in old barns and auto graveyards are remind­ers of what the 1973-74 Watergate scandal felt like here in Massachusetts, where voters chose Democratic candidate George McGovern over Republican Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential campaign: vindication, spelled out on fading bumper stickers.

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Since 1928, Massachusetts has backed only two Republican presidential candidates: Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and ’56, Ronald Reagan in ’80 and ’84. When the state voted 40 years ago for McGovern, who died Sunday at the age of 90, largely on the basis of his opposition to the Vietnam War, no other state followed suit. That lopsided outcome turned Massachusetts into a punchline for countless political jokes.

But as time passed, it also made a statement to the rest of the country that transcended partisan politics and has been a source of pride ever since:

We may not always pick a presidential winner or put forth a candidate (Dukakis, Kerry) capable of taking the Electoral College by storm (Romney gets his chance next month). But we are as maverick-y as any when it comes to voting the courage of our convictions and to seeing through the political chicanery of a candidate like Nixon, who had barely deigned to speak McGovern’s name during that race and who would resign in disgrace two years later.

In 1982, I interviewed McGovern on the 10th anniversary of the 1972 race. He was remarkably unbitter in defeat, despite having lost his US Senate seat in 1980 to a hard-right candidate who had portrayed McGovern as unpatriotic and antifamily. (McGovern was a decorated WWII bomber pilot, a devout Methodist, and devoted family man who had been married to his wife since 1943.)

At the time of our interview, McGovern was eking out a living making speeches. For these, he was typically paid about half of what Watergate felons ­Gordon Liddy and John ­Erlichman earned on the lecture circuit. “I guess crime really does pay,” McGovern cracked, puffing on a cigar and shaking his head.

Asked why he had fared so much better with Massachusetts voters in ’72, McGovern credited the political support he had gotten from the Kennedys and Tip O’Neill and on campuses like Harvard and MIT. But he also cited the many days he had spent campaigning in and around Boston that year, long before the “swing-state” syndrome came to dominate presidential campaign strategy, and to John F. Kennedy having “taught the state to be highly skeptical of Richard Nixon way back in 1960,” as a smiling McGovern put it.

One more footnote to the ’72 campaign that ought not to be forgotten: At the Democratic Convention that summer, McGovern had nearly selected Boston’s mayor, Kevin White, as his running mate. White, then 44 and in his second term as mayor, was a rising star in the national party and a leading voice on urban policy issues.

Other Massachusetts pols, however, Ted Kennedy included, opposed White’s nomination, largely because the mayor had supported Senator ­Edmund Muskie of Maine in the primaries. McGovern picked Thomas Eagleton of Missouri instead, to his lasting regret. Revelations that Eagleton had received shock therapy for depression led to his dismissal from the ticket. Choosing White, McGovern admitted, “would certainly have been much better than what happened.” “We probably should have overruled” Kennedy and the others, McGovern added. What lasting effect that decision had on Boston political history we will never know.

To voters and political aides who came of age here in the 1960s and ’70s, McGovern remained an inspirational figure, even decades later. Micho Spring worked for the ’72 McGovern campaign in ­California. Moving here in the mid-’70s, she later joined the White administration’s inner circle and now leads the consulting firm Weber Shandwick’s New England offices.

McGovern was “an icon for decency and integrity in politics,” she said. “For my generation, he lifted our sights and empowered us to participate in politics.” In Massachusetts, she added, the ’72 vote remains “a badge of honor, proof that we were on the right side of political events” all along.

History will remember George McGovern for his service to his country, political and otherwise. But his legacy ­deserves a pop culture salute or two, as well. In movies like “All The President’s Men” (1976) and “Nixon” (1995), McGovern functioned as a mostly unseen plot device, the object of ­Nixon’s withering scorn (“pansy poet socialist”) and dirty tricks strategizing. Not so on “Saturday Night Live,” though, or on the sitcom “Newhart,” where he personally mined his loser’s ­image for good-natured laughs.

“Do you realize you were the only state that voted for ­McGovern?” asked comedian Dick Gregory on his 1974 ­album, “Caught in the Act,” ­recorded before a Bay State ­audience. “You have the distinction of being able to tell the other 49 states, ‘We told you.’ ” In other words, don’t blame us.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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