Tag Archives: George McGovern

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.

Super Bowl Sunday At The Inn With George McGovern

This week, as journalists updated their obituaries of George McGovern, they focused on the usual things: His lopsided loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. His heroism as a World War II bomber pilot, followed by his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War. His outstanding advocacy of agricultural and nutrition issues.

I focused on the Super Bowl Sunday I spent with him, at the inn he owned.

In Stratford.

George McGovern

Once you’ve served as a U.S. Senator from South Dakota, plus lost the presidency by an overwhelming margin to a guy who later resigned in disgrace, there’s not much else to do with your life except buy the Stratford Inn.

That was the name, though it was as close to an “inn” as, well, George McGovern’s politics were to Tricky Dick’s. The Stratford Inn of  1990 was actually an old, 1950s-era motel, located — you can’t make this up — just off the Merritt Parkway. Right across the street from the Sikorsky helicopter plant, which McGovern must have remembered well from both his World War II and anti-Vietnam days.

Anyways, Sunday afternoons being a bit slow up in Stratford, the new innkeep must’ve decided he needed a hot marketing ploy. He came up with the idea of monthly forums. He’d sit down with guests and friends and chambermaids and columnists from the Westport News, and discuss world affairs.

One Sunday — Super Bowl Sunday — the topic was Panama. I guess it was in the news that year.

I’m not one to fawn over celebrities. I’ve been face to face (okay, face to belly button) with Muhammad Ali. I’ve been to Pele’s house (the one in Brazil), and had birthday cake with Martina Navratilova (hers, not mine).

But a chance to rap about an obscure Latin American country with one of history’s most important footnotes seemed like too great a chance to miss.

The Stratford Inn was located just across the street from Sikorsky headquarters.

So up the Merritt I motored to the Stratford “Inn.” I expected a teeny-tiny crowd, clustered around a small table.

Instead I found a throng of about 300, filling a large room with a lectern. They ranged from middle-aged to late-AARP, and there was enough tweed and cable-knit to suggest that Fairfield County’s closet liberals at least have well-stocked closets.

At precisely 2 p.m. George McGovern strode in, tan and fit. The crowd applauded enthusiastically. For 30 minutes he spoke professorially, with plenty of historical references and insightful anecdotes, about Panama and its neighbors.

He then took an hour’s worth of wide-ranging questions, speaking articulately, candidly and wryly about the state of the world. He came across as a passionate, humanitarian man, one who once happened to be his party’s nominee for president of the United States, and now owned an aging motel across the street from a factory.

It was clear too that he touched a responsive chord in his audience. It was a fascinating and educational 90 minutes.

Suddenly it was over. There was heartful applause. A few folks stayed around for autographs, and then George McGovern walked up the stairs. No doubt to watch the Super Bowl.

I thought of heading to the bar, to catch the game on the large screen, but decided not to. Somehow, I knew that Super Bowl XXIV would turn out to be as one-sided as Election Day MCMLXXII.

The Life Anne Wexler Lived

Anne Wexler, in 1980. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Last August, “06880” honored the life of Anne Wexler.  In the 1960s, the Westport housewife moved from the Zoning Board of Appeals to bigger things:  first the statewide Gene McCarthy presidential campaign, then national politics.  Wexler helped rewrite the Democrats’ delegate selection process, leading directly to the 1972 nomination of George McGovern.

Wexler next became a Jimmy Carter confidante.  After leaving the White House, she turned into a Washington lobbyist.

Last week, in its annual “The Lives They Lived” look at important and/or overlooked people who died during the year, the New York Times Magazine profiled Anne Wexler.  Writer Matt Bai focused on her lobbying days.  His even-handed look begins:

At the dawn of the 1960s, Anne Wexler was living an idyllic life, in a “Mad Men” sort of way.  The daughter of a prominent Manhattan architect, she had graduated from Skidmore, married an ophthalmologist and given birth to two sons.  She kept a neat house in Westport and lunched with the ladies.  “I had all the Jewish princess stuff” is how she later described it.

But the news from places like Montgomery and Saigon kept washing up like a wave on her manicured front lawn.  More than anything else, it was the escalation of the war she detested that pulled her into politics, first as the manager of local campaigns and then as a key organizer of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 crusade.  She wasn’t a feminist in the confrontational sense — Betty Friedan was a friend, never a mentor — but Wexler soon became a role model for younger women who were bent on remaking a male-dominated Democratic Party.  Older and more worldly than they were, Wexler seemed instinctively to know how the game was played.

Bai spends the bulk of his piece discussing Wexler’s lobbying career.  He writes:

Up to that point, the lobbying business was primarily divided by partisan boundaries; Democratic firms had access to Democratic lawmakers and Republicans to Republicans, which meant that a lobbyist’s business relied on the fortunes of his party.  Putting aside the ideological convictions that transformed her life, Wexler would team up with Nancy Clark Reynolds, a close friend of Reagan’s, to create a firm that not only would be led by women — “We’re going to be underestimated, and it’ll work every time,” Wexler told her new partner — but that could also reach any level of government, no matter who was in charge.

As the lobbying business grew into a $3 billion industry, Wexler’s name became synonymous with a new generation of elite “superlobbyists,” lawyers and political operatives whose influence on Capitol Hill made them far wealthier than many of the politicians they manipulated.

Bai notes that lobbying was disliked by the liberals who had long loved Wexler:

Wexler always rejected the idea that she had betrayed the principles of her activist heyday.  Rather, she portrayed her lobbying work as an extension of the public-service ideal, even as her firm’s client list expanded to include the likes of Anheuser-Busch, General Motors and Aetna.  “Government officials are not comfortable making these complicated decisions by themselves,” Wexler explained to a Time reporter in 1986.

It had the hollow ring of rationalization.  Wexler sold the company to Hill & Knowlton, the public-relations giant, in 1990 but continued to run it.  Ultimately, the woman who once led the fight for Gene McCarthy happily added a new partner’s name to the door: Bob Walker, the former Republican congressman and one of Newt Gingrich’s chief acolytes.

When Wexler died, Bai says, her passing was not universally mourned:

Wexler’s death, after a return of cancer she first beat back more than 20 years earlier, was met with tributes from many of the capital’s leading liberals — and with scorn from a few.  “What might Anne Wexler have accomplished for causes she really believed in,” the writer Michael Kinsley asked in a column in The Washington Post, “if she hadn’t spent the last three decades of her life taking on any cause that walked in the door with a checkbook in hand?”

Fair or not, Kinsley’s critique neglected the larger context. Wexler’s career was, in fact, the story of a generation.  The young idealists of both the McGovernite left and the Goldwater right had arrived in Washington vowing to reform it, but by the time Anne Wexler died, they had become, instead, their own kind of establishment — a ruling class of consultants and lobbyists and celebrity pundits every bit as immovable as the machine bosses and Brahmin lawyers of another era.  As Wexler herself might have pointed out, she didn’t do anything her male contemporaries hadn’t done.  She was simply better at it.

We are always told not to speak ill of the dead.  Yet politicians have always been different.  Anne Wexler — the peace advocate — was definitely a politician.