Fifty years ago this November, Nixon buried the hapless George McGovern under the third-largest landslide in the history of American presidential elections. McGovern carried only one of the 50 states, Massachusetts. The benighted American masses wouldn’t stop chanting “four more years,” to the dismay of peaceniks and intellectuals everywhere.
Five decades later, we still haven’t absorbed the reasons behind Nixon’s triumph. Few liberals grasp the sources of Nixon’s appeal, which cut across partisan lines and gave him a huge victory, even among voters who wanted out of Vietnam immediately, which was supposed to be Nixon-haters’ signature issue.
Until you get Richard Nixon, you don’t get America.
In the eyes of the left, Nixon won because he stoked mid-America’s resentments, which became their charge against Reagan and Trump as well. (Lately, channeling resentment has become the go-to explanation among liberal journalists and others when someone you disapprove of wins an election.) Trampling on our better angels, Nixon brought out the vicious, racist, sexist underside of the American psyche, at least that’s the way the story went. Ordinary racist, sexist white guys were just fed up with the Blacks, the gays, and the bra-burning women.
But Nixon was not Archie Bunker, despite his disdain for Ivy League meatheads. His appeal sprang not from reactionary grudges but from commonly held moral ideas that McGovern’s Democratic Party had turned its back on. The McGovern forces, like today’s progressives, believed that worries about crime were overblown, that all inequities come from the system, not culture or individual choice, and that American history was nothing to be proud of. Post-1972 debacle, McGovern’s manager, Frank Mankiewicz, lamented that the campaign had given in to pressure from wild-eyed radicals, “the cause people.” “If I had to do it all over again, I’d learn when to tell them to go to hell,” Mankiewicz said, a word of warning to present-day Democrats.
Hunter S. Thompson covered the 1972 campaign for Rolling Stone. His dispatches from one-night cheap motels, aided by liberal doses of speed, ayahuasca and bourbon, became a superb book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Thompson had already traveled with Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. “Getting assigned to cover Nixon in ’68 was like being sentenced to six months in a Holiday Inn,” Thompson wrote. The one bright spot was when Nixon’s campaign manager invited him to ride with Nixon on the campaign bus so that the candidate could talk football with Thompson, the only seriously football-savvy journalist to be found. “We had a fine time,” Thompson reported, since Nixon was “a goddamn stone fanatic on every facet of pro football.”
Thompson walks a razor’s edge between hard-drinking, hard-drugging cynicism and a desperate chink of hope, which he fastens to McGovern in spite of the South Dakotan’s flaws. Thompson’s prose, usually more fun than a barrel of meth-addled spider monkeys, turns sober and dull when he lauds the McGovern adviser Fred Dutton, who proclaimed that the younger generation could singlehandedly win elections for Democrats—another presage of current Democratic fantasies.