Just as U.S. Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential election loss to Richard Nixon marked the start of a new, adrenaline-fueled era in dirty politics, his death on Oct. 21 marked the unofficial end of high-school civics naivete.
In 1972, the Committee to Re-elect the President, with the eerily accurate acronym of CREEP, was working to make sure Richard Nixon stayed in office. Some of the administration’s most arrogant members came from a clan called the “USC Mafia.”
When these overgrown juveniles were enrolled at the University of Southern California, they were part of a group called “Trojans for Representative Government.” But they were better known as the “USC Mafia” for political pranks such as stuffing the ballot box during the student government election.
They also recruited spies to infiltrate the opposition and issued phony press releases to confuse the student voters. This is where the term “ratf------,” an obscene description of dastardly political deeds, originated.
These bozos were on the periphery of what is referred to in a general way as the Watergate Scandal. The 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, which was located in the Watergate office and residence complex in Washington, D.C., was at the heart of it.
A few years later, a young bantam rooster named Lee Atwater was cutting his teeth on South Carolina politics and sharpening those fangs for the days to come.
After establishing his willingness to stoop to almost any level for years in the trenches, Atwater caught fire working for Floyd Spence, a GOP candidate for re-election to Congress in 1980.
Atwater told reporters that Spence’s Democratic opponent, Tom Turnipseed, had “got hooked up to jumper cables.”
When he was 16, Turnipseed underwent electroshock therapy for depression. Although Turnipseed had revealed his medical history in a 1977 press conference, saying he hoped the story of his turnaround would help others, the voters sent Spence back to Congress.
Sound familiar? When reporter Jack Anderson revealed that McGovern’s 1972 presidential running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, had undergone electroshock treatment years earlier, Eagleton left the ticket.
In 2002, when U.S. Sen. Max Cleland ran for re-election from Georgia, he was sabotaged by his opponent’s television ads criticizing Cleland’s votes on national security issues.
Republican Saxby Chambliss approved ads that used images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to cast doubt on the patriotism of a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran and former head of the Veterans Administration.
McGovern understood how Cleland had been smeared.
The South Dakotan, a steadfast opponent of the Vietnam War, was chastized as lame on national defense because he believed the war was as much an exercise in futility as it was in fatality.
Never mind that McGovern flew dozens of bombing runs in the B-24 Liberator during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and many other medals for his heroism. Somehow the American electorate failed to grasp that fact.
Politics always has had its nasty, vicious, seedy element, dating back to the Founding Fathers.
The latest incarnation of is just the legacy of George McGovern’s pyrrhic victory over immorality. He went to his grave a better man than anyone conducting a push poll or working for a SuperPAC.