More than 30 years before Karl Rove and friends Swift-boated Vietnam War hero John Kerry, Republicans managed to turn a decorated World War II combat veteran, a devout Christian and a son of the Depression-era Plains heartland into the elite, effete counterculture candidate of “amnesty, abortion and acid.” But when Republicans destroyed the 1972 presidential candidacy of George McGovern, who died early this morning at the age of 90, they had more than a little help from Democrats.
Years after Robert Novak tarred the South Dakota senator and Democratic nominee with favoring “amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot” (over time “pot” got replaced with the alliterative “acid”) in a column attributing the quote to an unnamed Democratic senator, the right-wing columnist revealed that his source had been Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton – who briefly served as McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Ironically, Eagleton himself probably sealed McGovern’s losing fate when it was revealed that he’d undergone electroshock therapy for depression and hadn’t told the campaign (he then stepped aside for Sargent Shriver). Eagleton’s double shot at McGovern took its toll, and the Democratic nominee lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia that year.
McGovern’s loss is a case study in how low Republicans would go, and how much Democrats would do to help them, in those turbulent post-60s years of despair and liberal self-destruction.