The current presidential election has captured the public's attention in historic and unprecedented ways this year.
Now the two major candidates, Senator John McCain (the Republican nominee) and Senator Barack Obama (the Democratic nominee), begin a series of three nationally-televised debates between tonight and October 15. The VP candidates (Alaska Governor Sarah Palin-GOP and Senator Joe Biden-Democratic) also have a debate coming up on October 2.
They didn't have debates like this during presidential campaigns when we were at Vanderbilt, and since we won't be blogging come the November electon, I thought this would be a good time to take a look back at the 1972 presidential election, which was held while we were on campus.
Republican President Richard Nixon was the incumbent, and he was easily renominated for another term. Lots of Democrats tried to run against him, with Senator Edmund Muskie (the VP choice of Democrats in 1968) being the front runner early.
But Muskie was accused of crying while making a speech during the New Hampshire primary, and his candidacy quickly faded. Former VP Hubert Humphrey (the Democrats presidential candidate in 1968) made another attempt at winning the nomination, and actually got the most votes overall in the primaries, but he could not translate that into a win at the Democratic convention.
Foreshadowing some of the history that was made in the 2008 election, Representative Shirley Chisolm of New York became the first black woman to run for the nation's highest office, but she never became a serious challenger.
Another candidate who could have been a major contender was former Alabama Governor, George Wallce (who ran as a major third party candidate in 1968). This time Wallace ran as a Democrat and won major primaries in Michigan and Maryland. But, unfortunately for him, that occurred the day after he was critically wounded by assassin Arthur Bremer, while campaigning in a Maryland shopping mall. Wallace did eventually recover, but he was left an invalid and had to drop out of the 1972 race.
That left South Dakota Senator George McGovern as the man to beat for the Democratic nomination. Democrats remained split after their disastrous Chicago convention in 1968. McGovern helped re-write the rules for how the party would choose its nominee, relying more on primaries and less on caucuses or party bosses making the choice.
Because he understood the new process better than his rivals, McGovern had an edge that helped him win the nomination. But it also earned him the enmity of many Democratic leaders, who eventually left the party and supported Nixon. That included Nashville's Mayor at that time, Beverly Briley, who was very active in a group called "Democrats for Nixon."
McGovern also had a disastrous convention. Because of an extended floor fight in choosing the Vice Presidential nominee, McGovern and his VP selection, Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton, did not get to make ther acceptance speeches until after 3:00 AM in the morning local time, well after almost everyone else in the country had turned off their TVs and gone to bed.
Then came the disclosure that Eagleton had undergone shock therapy in the past. After first saying he stood behind Eagleton "100%", McGovern then asked him to step down from the ticket a few weeks later, to be replaced by Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps and a prominent in-law in the Kennedy family.
But Shriver took the slot only after several prominent Democrats turned it down, and the McGovern campaign never recovered from the debacle, especially as the Republican ticket of Nixon and VP Spiro Agnew was successful in portraying the Democrats as "half crazy liberals" according to the write up on Wikipedia about the 1972 election.
President Nixon was also much more popular by the of his first term. American involvement in the War in Vietnam was on its way to an end, with a cease fire being achieved a few months later in January of 1973. The economy had improved and the President had achieved detente with the Soviets and opened up better relations with Communist China through his history-making visit there.
Add it all together and it led to record landslide victory for President Nixon on November 7, 1972.Courtesy of the Vanderbilt TV News Archives, here's how NBC's John Chancellor and David Brinkley reported the results the next day.....
In looking back on the 1972 elections, you may also remember there was a little incident involving a break-in at the Democratic Party National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington in June, 1972. Not much came of the incident during the election, although later what became known as the Watergate scandal and its coverup led to President Nixon resigning his post in August, 1974 (Vice President Agnew had already let office in disgrace a few months earlier after pleading no contest in a bribery scandal).
A personal note: I remember on Election Day, 1972 sitting in senior seminar class in political science taught by Dr. Richard Pride. It was our consensus in the class that whatever Watergate was, it would probably not ever amount to anything important or have any long lasting impact on our politics in the future.
We could not have been so completely wrong!
So much for one of my first forays into being a political pundit. :)
So do you have any memories or reflections you'd like to share about the elections of 1972? If so, please leave them by clicking on the comments link below.