Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

In which it is proven that America has no historical memory

Posted by Charles II on May 15, 2011

Sad (read the comments and learn how I wasted an afternoon).

Rick Perlstein: smart. Not smart enough to realize that there is context to a historical situation that needs to be considered when talking about things that happened before you were born.

7 Responses to “In which it is proven that America has no historical memory”

  1. Rick Perlstein said

    I don’t get it. Can you explain? RP

    • Charles II said

      Rick, I left some detailed comments over at Balloon Juice, including links to my view of what happened in 1968 and 1972. The “sad” was directed at the commenters, though I felt some of your comments (notably “my op-ed…praising Hubert as an unsung hero”) were also clueless.

      One of the big problems of writing history that one didn’t live through is that (a) one relies on media accounts (many of which, like “Muskie cried,” simply aren’t reliable) and (b) that one doesn’t have a feel on how to weigh what people say.

      I know you’re a diligent researcher–I own Nixonland– but your limitations also are apparent to me.

      First, watch One Bright Shining Moment to get a sense for how McGovern’s supporters feel about him, even today. Ask yourself how many politicians have worn as well with their supporters. Maybe Ronald Reagan has done as well.

      Second, I really don’t think that you understand how badly fractured the Democratic Party was. The racists were ready to leave it. Many were one foot out the door. On the other hand, the regulars were angry about the fact that “the left” hadn’t supported Humphrey enough to win the 1968 election. The anti-war left, on the third hand, felt that Humphrey was not only lying about seeking peace in Vietnam, but had supported Daley in beating them up in Chicago; feelings were genuinely hardened against him. And on the fourth hand, African Americans were angry that what they had won in 1964/5 had led to so few measurable gains in education and economic opportunities. Indeed, there were moves to re-segregate. And on the fifth hand, the machines were falling apart. They weren’t delivering patronage anymore, and they were increasingly run by hacks and timeservers. The only thing that stood a prayer of holding the fragmenting mess together was raw populism, not what Humphrey had to offer. The only major candidates who stood a prayer of being believed as populists were McGovern and Wallace.

      Third, I don’t think you understand how pervasive the Nixon apparatus was. There’s an untold story in how his Enemies List targeted local leaders through the IRS, and how dirty tricksters infiltrated local campaigns. None of that came out at the time but, having lived through it, I am very well persuaded that he had deeply corrupted the campaign system, using the national security apparatus and the IRS to complicate the lives of anyone who might help to mount resistance to his re-election. I would also ask you whether David Broder was in his employ. I can’t find any reason for a seasoned national reporter to make such a devastating mistake, one that his own colleagues have dismissed as untrue. We know that Lucianne Goldberg was inside the McGovern campaign. What else was going on?

      Fourth, I heard the story of Eagleton contemporaneously (summer of ’72) from one of McGovern’s aides. It’s different than all of the stories I have heard. It’s also more believable. McGovern has said that he was told by a number of top leaders that Eagleton was reliable. Eagleton himself said he had no problems, and he lied. As I remember it (this is a long time ago), I heard that the FBI report was slow-walked and that the Bureau could have told McGovern about Eagleton if they had wanted to. As I remember it, the aide felt the Bureau had been part of Nixon’s sabotage. I would also point out that in the 1950s, electroshock was pretty common. By 1972, it had fallen into disfavor, but that’s not necessarily something that would have been apparent to a man of McGovern’s generation. So, your take on p. 700 of Nixonland seems a little anachronistic to me.

      True, it did tarnish McGovern’s reputation as a straight talker. It was a misstep, no question. But it was in the context of a sustained campaign of defamation not unlike what was done to Al Gore. This is one of the points I think you don’t get. If the press had really analyzed the Eagleton story, they might well have reported it as, “McGovern excessively kind and loyal to lying b—–d.” And that might have played very differently.

      What Humphrey and Scoop Jackson did in launching the “Anybody but McGovern” campaign was not heroic. It was scummy. McGovern had won by the rules. True, he was likely to lose the general. Not many challengers beat incumbent presidents. But why not let him do it in dignity, with Democrats unified over core issues? All of us understood that winning the general was a very, very tall order. But it did not have to be a debacle.

      The Democratic Party was in trouble well before the election. In my little piece of the battlefield, the regulars– a few of whom I count as friends– were incompetent. They refused my proposal to donate a nickel a week– a nickel a week!– so that we wouldn’t go through a crisis getting the office set up every election cycle. I quit in disgust, as did a whole generation of Democrats. We weren’t selfish and self-involved. We just knew there was no one in the Democratic Party who believed anything anymore.

      Twenty five years later, when the whole mess was decomposing in the face of the Gingrich machine, I went back–with a former presidential candidate, I might note–and did my little part to hold my state organization together with baling wire and gum. And then, when it became apparent that Democrats could win elections again, the time servers and hacks came back, and re-created dysfunction. They–the Democratic regulars– actually managed to persuade the voters that Democrats are more corrupt than Republicans! Granted, the media was mischievous. But the regulars certainly did their part to help the story grow.

      Rick, I have been there for a long time. I am not anyone important, but I know what happened. Hubert Humphrey was no hero. His regulars were the worst thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party. They had no principles, and when the going got tough, they split.

      It’s sad that the people who write the history don’t know these things.

      • David W. said

        I think you’ve summed it up pretty well, Charles. Humphrey did suffer in 1968 from being perceived as a pro-war candidate, mostly because Johnson refused to help him by opening up a peace dialogue with North Vietnam until very late in the campaign, too late to do Humphrey much good, and Humphrey as Johnson’s VP couldn’t come out against the war by himself. As it was, Humphrey almost pulled a win off and it’s one of the bigger what if’s of 1968 to speculate if Johnson had made his peace talks move earlier if that would have helped Humphrey with the anti-war left.

        The chaos of both the 1968 and 1972 Democratic conventions certainly didn’t help. In ’68 the party regulars coalesced around Humphrey instead of Gene McCarthy pissing off the anti-war wing, which subsequently led to changes that opened up the primary process in 1972 that made McGovern’s winning the Democratic nomination possible, but at the expense of pissing off the party regulars who (perhaps correctly) saw him as a candidate that would be a sure loser given his openly anti-war stance, which wasn’t that popular even by 1972.

      • This rates a post all by itself, Charles.

        Charles, I think that the bashing of McGovern is being amped up in several quarters today as a cautionary tale to those who would try to criticize, much less primary, Obama from the left. That’s also why 1980, with its primary challenge from Teddy Kennedy against Jimmy Carter — a challenge so bitter and prolonged that the wounds and divisions from it didn’t have a chance to heal in time to turn back Ronald Reagan — is being mentioned again.

      • Charles II said

        I’m going back over Nixonland, PW, and not finding all the nasty stuff about McGovern that Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice claimed to find. Too bad Perlstein won’t actually have a conversation about it. I think I could convince him not to do his OpEd.

        The chances of anyone challenging Obama were always zero. Mike Gravel, maybe. Not a serious candidate. Regular Democrats believe in Obama. I don’t hate the man, and I resigned myself to the fact that he was a disappointment years ago. I am sad that America can’t seem to catch a break. It can’t be said that decent people were not available in 1972 and in 2000. If someone genuinely decent held the office for a time, people might remember what the American republic is.

        Come home, America.

        I think the consequences of the Teddy challenge was less than one might think. It was mostly the relentless harping on the Iranian hostages– a serious error by Carter, no question. But I also think people underestimate the effect of John Anderson. Anderson was Ross Perot with dignity and a smile. Among my cohort, he was very popular. He undercut Carter’s credibility to the point that people decided they weren’t voting for Carter. Then, when people realized Anderson wasn’t going to win, they voted for the one remaining alternative. Naturally, Teddy’s attack from the left reinforced Anderson, but of the two, Anderson was the more seductive among the educated classes. I think Reagan won as a protest, sort of the way the Tea Party won today.

  2. jo6pac said

    Yep, those were the days. Yes you had to be there.

  3. Charles: Yes, I’d forgot about Anderson. And yes, he was seductive — so much so that Garry Trudeau had Mike Doonesbury fall for him.

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