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Appreciation

George McGovern’s indelible mark on Massachusetts politics

George McGovern

Globe File Photos

Senator George McGovern and Senator Edward Kennedy in 1972.

“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 now-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 for McGovern 40 years ago, largely on the basis of his opposition to the Vietnam war, none of the 49 other states 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’re 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’d barely deigned to speak McGovern’s name during that campaign and who would resign in disgrace two years later.

In 1982, I interviewed McGovern on the tenth anniversary of the ’72 race. He was remarkably unbitter in defeat, despite having lost his US Senate seat in 1980 to a hard-right candidate who’d portrayed McGovern as unpatriotic and antifamily. (McGovern was a decorated WWII bomber pilot, devout Methodist, and devoted family man who’d been married to his wife since 1943.)

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

Asked why he’d fared so much better with Massachusetts voters in ’72, McGovern credited the political support he’d gotten from the Kennedys and Tip O’Neill, and on campuses like Harvard and MIT. But he also cited the many days he’d 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 be forgotten: At the Democratic Convention that summer, McGovern had very nearly selected Boston 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 Maine senator Edmund Muskie in the primaries. McGovern picked Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton instead, to his lasting regret. Revelations that Eagleton had received shock therapy for depression led to his dismissal from the ticket. Choosing White instead, 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’ll never know.

To Massachusetts voters and political aides who came of age 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,” Spring said. “For my generation, he lifted our sights and empowered us to participate in politics.” In Massachusetts especially, 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-activist Dick Gregory on one of his 1974 album “Caught in the Act,” recorded before a Massachusetts 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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