Remembering George McGovern

By Grant Schott of Portland, Oregon. Grant is a union organizer and political activist. Previously, he contributed "Joe Miller, Oregon's first Democratic media consultant".

While our attention was focused on the 2012 election, former Senator George McGovern might not have received the remembrances that he deserved following his death on October 21st. It is worth looking back at the role that Oregon played in his presidential campaign.

Following the lead that Oregon and approximately a dozen other reform states started in the first decade of the 20th century, it was the McGovern- Fraser commission, co-chaired by Senator McGovern in 1969/1970 that finally mandated that Democratic delegates be selected by either primaries or precinct caucuses. McGovern's official presidential announcement in January 1971 was far earlier than others that year, but his campaign had been organizing for a year. Oregon, with its anti-war activists who had propelled Eugene McCarthy to victory in the 1968 primary, was a prime target for McGovern, one of the senate's most passionate doves.

Stronger than expected second place finishes against front runner Ed Muskie in Iowa and New Hampshire in early 1972, followed by an upset victory in Wisconsin, propelled McGovern to national prominence. By May, Muskie had suspended active campaigning, leaving the popular vote a virtual three way tie between McGovern, Humphrey and Alabama Governor George Wallace, with McGovern clearly ahead in the delegate count.

McGovern planned to arrive in Oregon on Tuesday May 16 in advance of the primary a week later, but the shooting of Wallace a day earlier caused him to suspend campaigning. McGovern flew into Portland on Thursday afternoon to address the high school mock convention at Memorial Coliseum, where he received huge cheers when he called the Vietnam War "a moral outrage."

Confident of his support in college towns and suburbs, McGovern's Friday focus was a jobs message aimed at blue collar workers. In a whirlwind day of campaigning, McGovern visited workers at Textronix in Portland and at wood products plants in Salem, Albany, Springfield, and Roseburg before addressing an evening overflow crowd of 500 at the Longshoreman's union hall in North Bend/Coos Bay.

The next few days would take McGovern to enthusiastic crowds in Medford, Pendleton, Redmond, and Klamath Falls, before the finale; a packed house and boisterous rally at McArthur Court at the University of Oregon. With actress Shirley McLaine at his side , McGovern enjoyed perhaps the biggest crowd that had greeted him that year; well over 8,000.

A combination of momentum, money, free media, and the absence of other candidates on the ground gave McGovern a whopping Oregon win on Tuesday, May 23rd, with 50% of the vote to only 20% for Wallace and 12% for Humphrey. Of the 15 of 22 primaries that McGovern entered, he won a majority in only Oregon and Massachusetts.

1972 was the last year that Oregon delegates were elected by voters on the primary ballot, with those chosen pledged to vote for the presidential winner on the first ballot. The McGovern campaign aggressively advertised their slate, almost all of whom won, beating out many party regulars. The June 30th issue of LIFE devoted a page to the perfect Oregon delegation, that had, more than any other state, achieved the McGovern-Frasier diversity standards.

Facing an uphill battle in Oregon and nationally, McGovern stopped in Portland on a West Coast swing on September 5th. He made only one stop, at the Gresham Senior Audit Center, where he was serenaded with "God Bless America" and presented with a quilt.

McGovern returned to Portland for a rally in front of Pioneer Courthouse on October 13th. With former U.S. Senator and '72 senate nominee, Wayne Morse, at his side, McGovern spoke of their long and often lonely anti-war stance: "The transcending issue of the last 10 years in American politics has been the tragic war in Southeast Asia. No other issue has been such a test of the courage of the judgment of men and women in public life"; and on that issue Wayne Morse deserves a plus for courage, for compassion and for wisdom.

In his landslide loss to President Richard Nixon, McGovern's 42% in Oregon was five points ahead of his national total, and he carried Democratic strongholds of Multnomah, Columbia, Clatsop and Coos counties. Morse lost to fellow dove, Senator Mark Hatfield 55% to 45%. The good news for Oregon Democrats was their victories in the state legislature. In the first election where legislators ran in defined single member districts vs. County wide, the Democrats won control of the house for the first time since 1964. With a seven member pick up, the 33 Democrats in the 1973 legislative session included Bill McCoy, the first African American legislator in Oregon.

After losing re-election to the senate in 1980, McGovern surprised most by announcing in September 1983 that he would seek the 1984 Democratic nomination. Written off as a sure loser in a field of eight, McGovern impressed sympathetic audiences and many in the media with his issue focused campaign. He drew relatively small but enthusiastic crowds when he visited in the UO and PSU in December 1983. Despite stronger than expected third place finishes in Iowa and Massachusetts, McGovern withdrew from the race early and was not on the ballot in Oregon.

McGovern returned to UO in April 1990 as the eighth occupant of the Wayne Morse Chair of Law and Politics. McGovern began his week in Eugene with a speech to 300 at the Eugene Conference Center, where he called for a halt to all nuclear testing as well as a halt in production to the $600 stealth bomber.

I was fortunate to hear McGovern speak at a downtown Portland church in June 1996, discussing his book, Terry, My Daughter's Life and Death Struggle with Alcoholism. McGovern fondly recalled the time he spent campaigning in Oregon. I was probably the youngest person there, and many in the audience had no doubt been active on his '72 campaign.

I hope that others will share their memories of McGovern in Oregon.

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