Last week — when the end was near for George McGovern — I posted a personal reminiscence about the senator, presidential candidate, war hero and humanitarian.
Following his death yesterday, every obituary noted — prominently — his lopsided loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race.
It’s a historical benchmark: McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, and manged just 17 electoral votes to Nixon’s 520.
But few pundits, political analysts or historians have ever explained how a senator from South Dakota — known primarily for his progressive politics and his opposition to the war in Vietnam, far to the left of most voters — actually won the Democratic nomination for president.
It all started in Westport.
In the mid-1960s, Anne Wexler was a Westport housewife. She was also a member of our Zoning Board of Appeals.
She worked for President Johnson’s election in 1964 but — disillusioned with his handling of Vietnam — went on to manage the congressional campaign of peace candidate John Fitzgerald.
By 1968 she was vice chairman of Connecticut’s Eugene McCarthy for President Committee. Only 13 states scheduled primaries that year. Wexler and a few others researched election laws, then figured out how to force the 1st primary in Connecticut history. It was too late to include all 169 towns, but they won 25 percent of the delegates to the June convention in Hartford. Wexler was 1 of them.
That summer, she helped research the delegate selection process in the other 49 states. Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa chaired a commission to examine changes in the nominating process. At the convention — the famous Chicago bloodbath — the Hughes report was voted down.
Wexler — who had zoomed up to a position on the national Rules Committee — reintroduced it as a minority report. Late at night, in the midst of chaos, it passed. The report called for a national commission to recommend ways of providing greater public participation in the selection of candidates.
George McGovern was appointed chairman. Wexler was named to the group too. The McGovern commission held hearings around the country. With solid knowledge of the new nominating process, McGovern himself was nominated for president in 1972.
Westport helped turn Anne Wexler into an activist. As local as it sounds, our Zoning Board of Appeals launched her political career — and set George McGovern on a path that ended with a presidential run that all Americans remember today.