Commentary Magazine


The Making of the President-1972, by Theodore H. White

Politics & the Parties

The Making of the President—1972.
by Theodore H. White.
Atheneum. 391 pp. $10.00.

The many pleasures of reading Theodore White’s accounts of our Presidential elections have in no way been dimmed by their repeated offering. They continue to be lively, vivid, and evocative, an especially remarkable achievement given the difficulties presented by the 1972 contest—a lopsided, never-in-doubt result; a continuing scandal involving campaign practices; and the deeply enigmatic personality of the victor.

It is an easy book to praise, and it deserves most of the praise it will get. The chapter on the power of the press is particularly good, a brilliant analysis by a knowledgeable but detached insider. Its obvious weaknesses are few and quickly stated—for example, a mind-numbing chapter on census data that would not even interest social scientists, whose tolerance for tedium is ordinarily quite high. And where one might wish to take issue with Mr. White, formulatng a rebuttal is no simple matter, for he has the engaging facility of being able to state his personal opinions with sufficiently ambiguous prose and with such disarming style that one is never certain whether one is fighting or shadow-boxing. He can be sharp about the issues (he leaves little doubt that he believes McGovern to have mishandled them atrociously and that Watergate was inexcusable), but he rarely lets his clarity on these matters detract from his soft-focus, subtle portraits of the personalities involved. It is hard to get mad at someone who appears to like, or at least to be fascinated by, almost everybody, and in this book Mr. White describes no enemies and few nonentities.

The enduring value of the book will be found, not in its surface qualities, however, but in whether it helps us answer the fundamental question raised by the campaign: Why did the Democrats nominate George McGovern, and what does his candidacy signify for the two-party system in this country? It is not to White’s discredit that he cannot provide a completely satisfactory answer. It can be answered, but not by a single journalist committed, necessarily, to reporting on the candidates rather than on the political process.

The fact that the gulf between Presidential politics and Presidential candidates is so wide that no author can attend adequately to both is an important clue to the distinctive character of the American electoral system. Senator McGovern became his party’s nominee as the result of thousands of decisions and events taking place in countless caucuses and conventions as well as in nearly two dozen state primary elections. White clearly could not be in attendance at more than a tiny fraction of these happenings and thus, perforce, he must write about the “big” events that were highly visible—the major state primaries—and interpret them in terms of such standards as he can extract from his considerable stock of political lore. The result here is an account, scarcely more elaborate than what the press reported at the time, of the results of primaries held in New Hampshire, Florida, Wisconsin, California, and a few other places, and expressed by Mr. White in terms of a military metaphor—McGovern began with a “guerrilla organization,” fought a “set piece” in Wisconsin, “rolled up the party from the Left” as things began moving his way, waged “the Battle of Tannenberg,” and skillfully practiced “convention warfare from his command post.”

But all this, dramatic as it is, does not really tell us whence came the fifteen hundred or so delegates that voted for Senator McGovern in Miami. And the military imagery implies more calculation, rationality, and organization than in fact existed, or even could be made to exist. For the central, striking fact about the American candidate-selection process is that it is the most decentralized, the most chaotic, and the most participatory of any large nation in the world.

We take primary elections for granted. They are used to choose candidates for most state offices in almost all states and to help choose Presidential candidates in twenty-two states plus the District of Columbia. They are unheard of in England, France, West Germany, or Scandinavia. There, party conventions or party leaders (sometimes a party leader) decides who will run for what office. Where we have caucuses, they are easily invaded and taken over by any well-organized group, “old-line” or “new politics,” that is sufficiently motivated. In Europe, one must be a card-carrying party member and a duly-chosen delegate.

The new rules for delegate selection promulgated by the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, known more familiarly (and accurately) as the McGovern Commission, as much for the proclivities of its staff as for the identity of its chairman, continued the process of democratizing the choice of delegates that had been started in Oregon in 1910 when that state adopted the first true Presidential preference primary. These new rules ended the power of state party leaders to hand-pick delegates, opened up local caucuses to more participation, prevented party leaders from voting by proxy, abolished the unit rule in all non-primary states, and prevented elected office-holders from being ex officio members of state delegations. The effect of these rules was to make control of the delegate-selection process far more precarious than it had been (and for most delegations, it had long been quite chancy) and to give the edge to whichever candidate could most effectively mobilize groups that could dominate local caucuses. And then there was the most celebrated rule of all, that requiring all state Democratic parties to take “affirmative steps to encourage . . . representation of minority groups on the national convention delegation in reasonable relationship to the group’s presence in the population of the states.” From this rule emerged the controversy over the use of “quotas” for women, blacks, and the young.

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Two questions arise: To what extent did these rule changes make possible the McGovern nomination? Are these rules good or bad for a two-party system? White believes the so-called quota rule was bad, not because it helped McGovern win the convention (he suggests it probably did not), but because anything that smacks of quotas is itself wrong and, besides, the quota issue helped the Republicans. As for the other rule changes, they represent to White a “prodigious exercise in intelligence,” of the “same order of thoughtfulness as produced the American Constitution.”

The theory that the new rules aided McGovern, and that the McGovern supporters deliberately arranged things this way, has been most forcefully advanced by Penn Kemble and Josh Muravchik (“The New Politics and the Democrats,” COMMENTARY, December 1972). To correct the alleged excesses of these rules is one of the principal tasks of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, of which Kemble is executive director. Their argument in essence is this: the new rules were confusing, they were interpreted and enforced by their authors who were also McGovern partisans, they led by means of quotas to an unrepresentative convention, and they destroyed or weakened local party leadership and substituted for it a band of McGovern enthusiasts incapable of (and perhaps uninterested in) appealing successfully to the broader electorate.

White’s book provides almost no evidence by which to test this theory; given the necessary limits on his time and energy, it would be miraculous if it had. Since no systematic evidence is available, we must for now accept or reject the theory on the basis of our own best conjectures. Most of the reasons advanced in opposition to the McGovern rules strike me as unconvincing or at best equally applicable to the old rules previously in effect. The old rules were also confusing and they also were interpreted and enforced by persons who stood to gain by them. The management of party caucuses and conventions on behalf of the Stevenson and Kennedy candidacies by the “regular” party leadership was every bit as manipulative or chaotic or both as was the control of these caucuses and conventions by activists on behalf of McGovern. The quota system is repugnant to democratic theory, but it probably decided no Democratic primary election and is not, in principle at least, inconsistent with a very different convention result. There were, after all, plenty of women, blacks, and young people prepared to vote for Hubert Humphrey or Henry Jackson. It so happens that most did not get to Miami. The 1972 convention was surely “unrepresentative” in the sense that the delegates were unlike rank-and-file Democratic voters in personal characteristics, yet the same could be said of almost every Democratic convention—how many $9,000-a-year teachers or policemen do you find in any delegation at any time? Much of the party leadership—most Congressmen, most big-city mayors—was excluded from the convention, but they are also “excluded” from the candidate-selection process in most states most of the time, because ordinarily (Presidential politics is a conspicuous but rare exception) candidates are chosen by primary elections, not by conventions.

Even if the new rules helped McGovern, it was in many places because McGovern’s opponents simply did not make a serious effort to use the rules to their own advantage. Labor unions could have dominated many local caucuses, but often they were caught napping or believed that they could walk in the back door.

I do not wish to overstate this point of view; it is at best a theory and in many places could no doubt be refuted by a showing of specific examples of the rules determining the outcome rather than simply determining the process But it is at least as plausible a theory as the one that the McGovern Commission stole the nomination for its chairman.

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How, then, did McGovern win and what does his winning signify for the Democratic party? The crucial feature of the McGovern movement was not to be found in the rules it invented or the stratagems it employed, but in the motivation and ideas of its participants. The McGovernites understood this thoroughly. That is why they called themselves, collectively, a “movement”—they were committed to a certain view of politics, to a set of policies, and to a candidate above all else. At the grass-roots level, they were amateurs, by which I mean not that they were unskillful but that they were driven by a desire to see a vision of the good society realized and not merely or chiefly by the desire to win. The significance of the exclusion of the Congressmen and mayors from the convention is that these were the most visible, but by no means the only party members for whom winning was more important than the ideas with which one wins.

The McGovern Commission did not launch the process by which a movement could take over a party, nor in all probability were its rules essential to its success. The Gold-water supporters captured the Republican party in 1964 without first “reforming” the rules, and William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic convention in 1896 when politics scarcely had any rules at all. No doubt the McGovern rules facilitated this process, especially since the rule-enforcers were part and parcel of the McGovern high command. But the events of the 1960′s gave birth to a political generation determined to alter fundamentally American government and its policies; the openness of American politics, the themes established by the media, and the legacy of guilt besetting the party leadership because of the 1968 convention helped that movement win. All of these points White develops well.

What McGovern had to do and say in order to arouse and maintain the enthusiasm of his movement followers, however, rendered him incapable of attracting a majority of the voters and thus of winning the Presidency. McGovern lost because he was nominated, and because of what people inferred of the intentions of his supporters from the way in which he was nominated.

A two-party system in which either candidate or both is the apparent instrument of an ideological minority is not a viable basis for democratic government. The internal democratization of the parties has been underway throughout this century, beginning with the adoption of the primary election and continuing with such piecemeal reforms as the abolition of the two-thirds rule by the Democrats in 1936, the rise of the club movement in New York, California, and elsewhere, and the adoption of the McGovern rules. Long before McGovern, however, it was possible to take a convention by storm: Wendell Willkie did it in 1940 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and in both cases the decisive role was played by groups outside the regular party leadership operating through the media and in key primary races. The crucial difference between those nominations and the McGovern candidacy was the absence, in the former instances, of any mass movement that had to be mobilized and sustained by ideological appeals.

The two-party system, which is the key to the operation of the Presidency and Congress, depends crucially on each party being strongly motivated to do whatever is necessary and proper to win. In 1972, one party failed to do what was necessary and the other did many things that were not proper. Losing an election always has been a natural and powerful corrective for a party that strayed too far from the center of political opinion. But political memories are short, and whereas the Republicans had the lessons of 1964 vividly before them, the Democrats had to hark back (few did) to 1896 to find a comparable case. The other candidates of movement politics—Eugene McCarthy and (to an extent) Robert F. Kennedy—never won the nomination.

It is not at all perverse to suggest that the internal democratization of both parties may already have gone too far to enable them to perform their essential role of offering to voters a serious choice (by “serious” I mean not philosophically serious, but one in which each candidate has a reasonable chance of winning). The more open the party machinery, the greater the ease with which it can be used to offer a non-serious choice. V. O. Key, Jr. devoted a good part of his impressive scholarly career to showing, in painstaking detail, why the most important democratizing device, the primary election, in fact probably adds little to democracy and may indeed detract from it by allowing heavily-financed candidates whose appeal is only to an enthusiastic minority to win nominations.

The matter is not easily decided, however. If an “open” party encourages capture by an ideological movement, it also prevents its permanent control by a corrupt oligarchy. Striking the correct balance between access and power is a difficult task, but it is not made any easier by those who compare favorably all reforms (save those embodying quotas) to the efforts of the Founding Fathers. The cure for the defects of democracy is not always more democracy. At the very least, the organization and conduct of our parties deserves more discussion than we now are giving them, for their condition is more grave than merely the McGovern debacle would indicate.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.




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