This is a book by Theodore White
and part of a series of books about American presidential election
campaigns. His 1960 book
was proclaimed as one of the Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States In the 20th Century
. This book, published in 1973 by McClelland and Stewart in Canada and Atheneum Publishers in the U.S.A., follows all of the political players within the Democratic
camps through the ups and downs of the 1972 election campaign. This is a detailed history and contains in depth insightful analyses of the issues, numbers, polls and events and winds up as a tour de force of American politics.
There is substantial first hand information about what happened along the campaign trail and White has researched deeply many of the subplots. There is a desciption of George McGovern's fatal flaw:
McGovern was committed to a vision, to peace and brotherhood and would be willing to die for that vision; but his commitment to people, individually or to any group outside of the staff of his own (campaign) army - this was another matter. (p. 213)
Goodwill was the pattern of George McGovern's frailty. On public goodwill, on care for the sick and aged, on respect for the blacks and the youth and the women, on peace and tax equality - he was inflexible. It might - and did - worry Americans who were on the wrong side of this goodwill. But when it came to individuals, in the critical face-to-face decisions and interchange of personalities, the goodwill was a weakness. He could not dismiss, or fire, or sharply disagree, or impose his intent on people he personally liked. His kindness and gentleness would lead him to say almost anything to any individual in his pursuit of friendship, brotherhood and harmony; if later, people were let down by reliance on his private commitments, it was to McGovern a sincere, an acute, a poignant sadness; but he must be true to his larger causes...and as his private commitments one by one came apart openly, the public questioned the largest thrust of his campaign - his credibility and competence. (p. 215)
White concludes that McGovern self destructed at the Democratic convention through the alienation of all of his support and that Nixon should never have feared re-election once George Wallace had been removed from the race by a bullet. "Ninety percent of (Nixon's) campaign lay right there in his own skull; he had finally learned that ideas move people, concepts frame politics; had there been no Committee to Re-Elect at all, to translate polict to tactic, he would have done better." (p. 225) The committee to re-elect had a dirty tricks team who's actions resulted in Nixon's resignation.
The issues of the day were significant problems that the country faced: Vietnam; the economy; busing. The changing nature of the economy is described:
By 1971 there were over 13,000 shopping centers in the United States; in the next fifteen years their number, it was estimated, would more than double. And the inner cities might well tremble at what the numbers of the past decade forcast for the next. In 1958, the year before the first shopping center appeared outside Portland, Maine, its downtown businessmen had grossed $140,000,000; ten years later, with ten peripheral shopping centers in business, downtown Portland's business had fallen to $40,000,000. Other cities had less accurate measures - yet whether it was Janesville, Wisconsin, or Rochester, Minnesota, or Selma, Alabama (the last of whose three downtown department stores closed in 1972), the shopping centers of the suburban belt were destroying the central city, by draining it of its commercial vitality. (p. 155)
This kind of change is subtle and creeping and proceeded to destroy to a great extent the life of the cities. But the change that was most visible was labelled as "busing" in the political campaign and "tipping" around the water cooler: George Wallace's issue; the race issue. White gives a raw description:
The blackening of the cities was rarely talked about in public political dialogue; but it was obsessive where mothers gathered in neighbourhood parks, where men gathered at bars, where young couples talked with each other about apartment-hunting. On the common toungue, the whole phenomenon was styled "tipping": one block would go black; then another; then the neighbourhood. In some inner cities, a major factory or mill would tip black, and young whites would look for work elsewhere. In this unspoken drama, it was the school system always that set off anxieties; if a local school tipped, the neighbourhood would tip, if a city school system tipped, then ten or fifteen years later one could see the entire city beginning to tip. When politicians talked of "busing," they were obliquely talking, as everyone knew, of tipping. (p. 142)
It makes me wonder if we have made any real progress since 1972.
I tremedously enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in politics. At the very least, one will make more sense of the quick banter on The West Wing. This is a heavy tome and demands some work from the reader, but if you are passionate about politics or would like to get passionate about politics, the drama in the book will enthrall you and perhaps launch you from the sofa to make a difference.