George McGovern’s 1972 Run: The Westport Back Story

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.

George McGovern

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.

Anne Wexler

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.

18 responses to “George McGovern’s 1972 Run: The Westport Back Story

  1. Ya think Mrs. Wexler would really want this story told? Hopefully she has/had a great sense of humor…

  2. Nick Thiemann

    In some very important ways Anne Wexler changed our national political life for the past four decades and probably many more to come. As a proponent of “patiticipatory democracy” she provided the framework of our modern primary system. Before 1972, the party leaders (a/k/a bosses) pretty much chone our condidates. After Anne’s Democratic rules change, condidates were chosen at the ballot box in primaries..

    • With all due respect, Anne Wexler was not solely responsible for that change.

    • And as a result the candidates became more radical on both sides.

      • Actually, it’s not on both sides. It would be incorrect to say today’s Democrats are more “radical” than they were in the 1970s. They just appear that way in comparison with a party that now has no liberal or moderate representatives, and few old style conservatives.

        • Plus primaries actually produced nominees who were far less radical than the rest of the field of contenders. ClintonMcCain, and Romney are all examples of that.
          As far as Congress is concerned, redistricting, guaranteeing more and more districts with extremely dominant strength by one party or another and thus uncompetitive general elections, did a lot more to radicalize the House.

    • the candidates that are chosen for the primaries are now hand picked by ‘party bosses’. it’s a violation of laws, regulations and legal precedent but it is absolutely current practice.

  3. Jane Nordli Jessep

    Anne Wexler and family were neighbors of ours when I was growing up. I used to baby sit for her two young boys almost every weekend when I was in junior high school. She was instrumental in shaping my interest in Skidmore College, which I attended and from which I graduated.
    Anne’s interest in politics actually began when she was at Skidmore, she campaigned for Harry Truman. I also remember going to a rally with the Wexlers and Kaisers for John Kennedy when he was campaigning in 1960 in Connecticut. The Kaisers are another important family in Democratic politics and various cousins and so on still populate our Westport/Weston environs.
    She became one of the most powerful women in Washington and certainly a trail blazer for women who are drawn to politics.
    She died a few years ago and now George McGovern has gone, too. Those were very difficult days and I sometimes wonder if the seeds of the passionate intensity, the bitter vitriol and the challenges of finding common ground were planted then, now come to full fruition.

  4. Before Westport claimed Anne, she lived on East Ave, in Norwalk. She was in my high school class ( ’47) and we were friends. Years later, after she became the highest ranking woman in the Carter administration, and later a high-powered lobbyist, she — and husband Joe Duffy — had a winter retreat on Sanibel Island, FL., near where I lived in Sarasota. I spoke to her often and, in mid 2009, we planned on joining our high school classmates for our 62nd reunion ( the year most of us were turning 80 ). On July 27, I received an e-mail from Anne.She asked me to read it at the reunion. It read, “Greetings to all. Sorry I can’t join you. 80 is he new 60, right?” She died a week later on August 7th.

  5. I’m a political junkie, and far from being a Democrat; however, I know what Anne Wexler meant to our modern American political process. She was a major force in reshaping how our political parties work, and how we elected our presidents from the 60’s through early this century. She also introduced Bill to Hillary, something President Clinton proudly mentioned in his eulogy at Ms. Wexler’s memorial service in 2009. Like her politics or not, she made a difference!

  6. Anne Wexler was very dear to me.I am pleased to say her legacy lives on in her children and hopefully (soon) her grandchildren. Of course Westport was just the kick starter to a very lucrative career in politics. Those of you who are new to this subject should look up more about her. She worked with some of the most powerful people in DC and I think you’ll find her story very interesting.

  7. Anne Wexler introduced me to Paul Newman at a rally for Joe Duffy for Congress. She and I told Paul about the World Affairs Center on Taylor place, and he and Joanne Woodward became regular Christmas shoppers there, for years. Anne was gifted at jumpstarting clusters of irrepressible activists.