1972 American Election

Richard Nixon - Charles Tasnadi/AP Photo

Richard Nixon - Charles Tasnadi/AP Photo


A look back at the 1972 Presidential Election.  Senator George McGovern battled incumbent Richard Nixon for the Presidential Office.  It was the election that is now famous for the Watergate affair. Rewind will bring you sounds, ideas and interviews of that historic event.

Senator George McGovern and Senator Thomas F. Eagleton - AP Photo

Our neighbours to the south are in full electoral swing. Speeches have been made, voters wooed, mud has been slung, and all kinds of promises made. In just a matter of weeks we'll find out whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is the 45th President of the United States. On this edition of Rewind, a look at one of America's most contentious and controversial elections.  Yes, there are many electoral contests that could qualify for that title.  But our choice, at least for today, is the contest forty years ago in 1972 between the Republican incumbent Richard Nixon and his Democratic challenger George McGovern.

It was a remarkable time in American history.  There were the usual issues of the economy, inflation and unemployment.    

But there was also the Vietnam War.  America was involved in Vietnam for more than twenty years, and by 1972 many Americans wanted their soldiers to come home.
At home, there was the issue of bussing. Since the mid-sixties, schools had been integrated by bussing students from one area to another. It was still very much a hot button topic in 1972.
As if all this weren't enough, there was another swirl of controversy on the horizon:  the Watergate Affair.
Add it all up and you have one heck of an election.   At its heart were two characters.  Each veteran politicians.
There was Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States hunting for his second term in office.   His strategy was to portray himself as an elder statesman.   Listen to this TV campaign ad from 1972:

MALE NARRATOR: This is the passport of the President of the United States. In his four years in office, Richard Nixon has visited six continents and 47 countries. In India, he laid out the Nixon doctrine. In Yugoslavia, he met with Marshal Tito. In Mexico, he signed an agreement to combat drug traffic. In Canada, he signed the Great Lakes environmental agreement. In China, he talked peace with Mao Tse-tung. In the Soviet Union, the nuclear arms agreement became a reality. President Nixon's travels represent a new foreign policy for the United States, a policy that calls for the self-reliance of our allies and peaceful negotiations with our enemies, all for a single purpose, world peace. But there are still places to go and friends to be won. That's why we need [with TEXT] President Nixon. Now more than ever.

A Richard Nixon TV ad from 1972. 

In the other corner was Democratic challenger George McGovern.   The South Dakota native had been a World-war-II fighter pilot, senator and congressman.  Under the Kennedy administration, he ran the Food for Peace program which sent surplus American food to developing countries.   In 1963, he became the first senator to publically voice opposition to the Vietnam War.  His number one campaign message was that he would end the war in Vietnam.  Here is one of his television ads.

MAN: My nephew was killed over there in Vietnam about two years ago. We're going to go to Russia now and help develop their country. And the Chinese, they want Nixon to stay in power here yet. Why?
MCGOVERN: Personally I think it was a good thing the president went to Peking. I think it's a good thing we're trying to improve our relations with Russia. But why do we say that 15 million people in North Vietnam are a greater threat to the United States because they are Communists, than 800 million people in China, or 300 million in Russia. This is the thing that doesn't make sense.
MAN: I voted for, I voted for Nixon in '68. I never voted for a Republican before until he come along and says he's gonna stop this war, which he didn't.
MCGOVERN: But do you know who you're gonna vote for this year?
MAN: George McGovern.
(crowd applause and cheers)
MALE NARRATOR: McGovern, Democrat for the people

A George McGovern's TV ad for his 1972 Presidential Campaign.   Recordings of both those ads are courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Richard Nixon came into the 1972 election campaign with a strong advantage.   As his ads boasted, he had travelled the world strengthening ties between the US and other countries.  He took unprecedented diplomatic trips to China and Russia.  He had proven himself an effective diplomat with one big exception:  he hadn't been able to end the Vietnam War.  The American middle class was weary of unfulfilled promises of peace.   Young people were demonstrating around the country.  It had been two years since four students had been killed by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio.

So a lot was going on.  And CBC Radio was there to decode and parse it all.   In September 1972, about six weeks before the election, the CBC Radio show Sunday Magazine compiled the stories and sounds of the US election.

Some of the rhetoric on the American economy could easily be a part of the current election discourse.   But one issue that was unique to the '72 campaign was the Thomas Eagleton affair.   Eagleton was George McGovern's running mate.   During the campaign, it was revealed that back in the 60's he had received electroshock therapy as a treatment for clinical depression.  Under public pressure, McGovern dropped him from the ticket.  

The press' discovery of Thomas Eagleton's mental illness and subsequent shock therapy was told in an interview with Robert Boyd, Washington Bureau Chief of Knight Newspapers.  The interviewer was Stephen Banker.

Many believed that he hadn't jumped, but had been pushed.  They saw McGovern's withdrawing of support for Eagleton as a flip-flop. 

George McGovern quickly replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver.  He had never been in public office, but was democratic royalty.  Shriver was the brother-in-law of the late President John Kennedy.  He had served in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and had been the Ambassador to France.  But even with that political track record, the shadow of the Eagleton Affair continued to loom over McGovern. 

McGovern's problems didn't end with his vice-presidential pick.  There was deep unrest among democrats in the southern states.  Many didn't support his liberal views and his proposal to cut defence spending.  Some openly campaigned against him and created an organization called Democrats for Nixon.

One of the reasons for its infamy is, of course, the Watergate affair.   On June 17th, 1972, five men broke into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC.  It was later established that they had links to the Committee to re-elect President Nixon. 

When the Watergate story surfaced in the summer of 1972- just months before the election. But it had virtually no effect on Nixon's popularity.  It's astounding when you look back.  How could Watergate not be a campaign issue?  Some hints to the answer to that question are revealed in this 1972 CBC Radio interview with Bob Woodward.   He, along with Carl Bernstein, was assigned to report on Watergate.  The pair would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for their work. But when this interview took place, the Watergate affair was a non-issue.   Who cared about an obscure robbery at a Washington-DC hotel?   Well eventually a whole nation did.  It's fascinating to look back to that moment when the Watergate break-in was just coming to light.  Journalist Bob Woodward appeared on As It Happens on September 18, 1972.

Back then most people didn't even know that the Watergate was a hotel.  As you heard reporter Bob Woodward say in that interview, the Watergate Affair was not a "backyard issue." It had no significant impact on Nixon's popularity in the 1972 campaign.

Watergate was a washout with the American people.  But challenger George McGovern's did have one weapon against Nixon which found flesh.  It was America's weariness with the Vietnam War.  He continually jabbed the President's failure to end the War.  Four years earlier, during Nixon's first campaign, stopping the Vietnam war had been one of his main campaign promises.  He had failed to deliver. 

A little over a week before the election, everything changed.  The White House announced that a peace plan had been negotiated with North Vietnam. 

Henry Kissinger talked about a peace deal in October 1972, just before the American election.   It's hard to imagine what George McGovern and the democratic election machine must have felt when news of the peace deal broke.  Suddenly, McGovern's main election platform had been demolished.  And as they say, it was all over but the shouting.

On November 2, five days before the election, President Nixon addressed the people of America in a half-hour radio broadcast.  His tone was confident, paternal, some might even say syrupy. He spoke of the importance of the Peace deal with Vietnam, his vision for America and its future. 

Just 5 days later, Nixon enjoyed a landslide victory.  It was the largest Republican triumph in Presidential history.  Nixon took over 60% of the vote, capturing every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  Although the Senate and the Congress were controlled by the Democrats, the future looked very bright for the Republican party and their Presidential leader.

But that was not to last.  Although it was originally dismissed as a footnote to the campaign, the Watergate affair, of course, never went away.  A year later, proof of Nixon's involvement came to light.  The Watergate scandal became front page news. 

Massachusetts, the only state that voted against Nixon suddenly became very smug.  Bumper stickers with the slogan "Don't Blame Me I'm From Massachusetts" became popular.

However in the days after the election, the Watergate storm clouds were still far off over the horizon. 

And that's where we'll leave this story.  Richard Nixon and the republican party basking in their landslide victory.  George McGovern licking his wounds after a humiliating defeat. 

Less than two years later, Richard Nixon would step down from office in the face of certain impeachment because of the Watergate affair.

George McGovern remained in public life for many years.  He held his Senate seat until 1980.  In 1984, he took a brief run at the Democratic Presidential Nominee.  In the early 90's, he served as a United Nations Ambassador under Bill Clinton.  And in 2011, he released his latest book, "What It Means to be a Democrat."  Now in his 91st year, he lives in Florida.
Richard Nixon died of a stroke at the age of 81 in 1994.