I’ve followed election cycles to one degree or another for more than 50 years. I learned much of what I know at the family dinner table, growing up in a small Midwestern town. My father was an unwavering Republican who wore his preferences on his car bumper.
As a kid I assumed it had always been this way until Dad let it slip that he had cast his first Presidential ballot for FDR, the Democrat he would later term “The Great Destroyer.” Like Donald Trump, Dad used colorful nicknames for politicians he didn’t like: Horseburger, Pipsqueak, Egghead and Hood, to name a few. To Dad, “R” beside a candidate’s name stood for “right” as opposed to “wrong.”
Yet as one of the youngest Americans ever to vote in a Presidential election, I cast my first ballot for the Democrat George McGovern in 1972. I turned 18 that August. The major issue for me was ending the Vietnam War. My Dad wasn’t for it either, but nothing could bring him scratch his ballot and vote for Senator McGovern. Or, if he did, he never admitted to it.
My McGovern bumper sticker distressed my Dad, but he didn’t do much more than exchange tongue-in-cheek humor. That’s what many people did back in the 20th century. When we disagreed over politics, we didn’t hate one another or howl at the moon over who won the election. We didn’t take to social media to ridicule and degrade our friends and relatives for the world to see or march around carrying vulgar signs.
From today’s vantage point, that time looks refreshingly quaint. Though my parents and I disagreed on who we were going to vote for, I wasn’t disowned my choice, not even after I shook hands with McGovern during a campaign stop that summer.
Had I been more savvy, I would have realized how badly McGovern’s campaign was faltering, especially after he shed his running mate, Sen. Tom Eagleton when it was revealed that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression, a fact that had been hidden from the public. Mental health issues carried a bigger stigma then than now, and the revelation made Eagleton an unacceptable candidate.
As idealistic as I was about McGovern’s antiwar stance, I didn’t realize how easily a one-issue candidate‘s campaign can be torpedoed, which it was, by Richard Nixon, who claimed that peace was at hand that October.
After the votes were counted, McGovern won only 17 electoral votes to Nixon’s 520. It wasn’t a landslide, it was a tsunami. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could endure the public humiliation of such a trouncing.
My introduction to politics had come during the Nixon-Kennedy campaign of 1960, though I was only in first grade. The contest was discussed regularly by my parents. Every fourth summer my mother tuned in to watch political conventions of both parties. I was intrigued by the crazy hats worn by delegates, the air horns, the imaginative ways state delegations introduced their votes for candidates.
During the 1964 campaign, one of the games my mother suggested for us kids was to count the Goldwater and Johnson bumper stickers on out-of-town road trips. Whoever got Johnson had far more work to do.
And so it was, the morning after the 1964 election. My Dad was crouched in our driveway, removing his Goldwater sticker from the back bumper of his car when our neighbor Mr. McDonald, drove by and rolled down his window. “I guess you’re not too proud of Goldwater now, are you?” he laughed.
Dad didn’t know Mr. McDonald well, so he knew it wasn’t a joke. The gloating comment took him aback—the idea that this man would go out of his way to make fun of Dad’s choice, Barry Goldwater, who had endured a humiliating defeat hours earlier.
The bumper sticker incident taught me was how classless it is to make fun of a loser’s supporters, especially so soon after the defeat.
Kids at school took the side of their parents which caused some schoolyard bullying as well. The conventional wisdom was that a vote for Goldwater was a vote for a bigger war in Vietnam. So my parents voted for Goldwater and sure enough, the war escalated, though Goldwater’s opponent, Lyndon Johnson, was Commander in Chief. As we all know, the Vietnam Conflict grew to a staggering level through the 1960s. Our military involvement didn’t end until 1975, more than 10 years after the landmark election of 1964.
George McGovern overcame the debacle of 1972 and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate eight more years.
I crossed paths again with him at Lenoir-Rhyne where I worked in the 1990s. He was on campus to discuss his role as president of the Middle East Policy Council. By then my political affiliations had shifted, but I told the former senator that I’d voted for him in 1972. He smiled, no doubt used to being drubbed as one of the biggest losers in the history of the Electoral College There weren’t many of us who voted McGovern in the first place, much less would admit it.
There is a graceful way to win and a graceful way to lose. Gloating and bullying is never a class act. Through the years I’ve been on both sides of political contests, but through it all, I’ve never wanted to be like Mr. McDonald or be shamed like my Dad was.
That was 56 years ago.
You may not remember what was said, but you’ll always remember how a gloating comment made you feel.