Barry Sweet, File, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Abbie Hoffman sobbed that fateful night at the downtown Manhattan apartment of fellow activist Jerry Rubin. So did Rubin and Allen Ginsberg. John Lennon was drunk, and out of control, shouting "Up the Revolution!" in mock celebration of a dream defeated.
It was November 1972 and George McGovern had just been whipped in a landslide by Richard Nixon.
McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, was the earnest son of a minister, raised on a South Dakota farm. He wasn't a longhair and he wasn't charismatic, not a man you'd expect to win the loyalty of rock stars or win the heart of Hoffman, the Yippie prankster who just four years earlier had suggested a pig run for president and said what America needed was nonstop sex in the streets.
But the candidate's steady liberal principles, and the timing of his run, made McGovern the first presidential nominee of a major political party to attract a broad and public following from the rebels who had come of age the decade before.
"He was the first candidate I voted for," says the activist and historian Todd Gitlin, who was in his late 20s at the time. "I think the support he got was a sign that the era of radical obstinacy was over."
The optimism was understandable. Hubert Humphrey had lost by fewer than 600,000 votes to Nixon in 1968, and the 1972 election was the first presidential campaign since the minimum voting age had been lowered from 21 to 18, potentially adding millions of (presumably) liberal young people to the rolls. And McGovern, in opposing a war expanded and advocated by Democratic presidents, had shaken the party's post-World War II tradition of aggressive anti-Communism.
"Humphrey was anathema to us in '68, and then we got McGovern and America suddenly seemed like a place where real choices were presented," says historian Jon Wiener, who has written often about the politics and culture of the Cold War era. "I remember election night, 1972, as like the worst night in American politics in my life. Here was this stark choice between war and peace, truth and lies, and the American people rushed to embrace truth and lies."
For many, McGovern's campaign promised the fulfillment of what Robert Kennedy might have achieved if not for his assassination in June 1968. Kennedy was just 42 at the time, energetic and wavy-haired. "Bobby Is Groovy," supporters' posters had read. His candidacy inspired one of the first presidential fundraising concerts to feature rock stars, when the Byrds played at a May 1968 concert that also included Sonny and Cher and gospel great Mahalia Jackson. (Humphrey's campaign attempted, in vain, to get a song out of Jefferson Airplane.)
When McGovern, aided by party rules he helped revise, became the surprise contender in 1972, the left felt revived. Hoffman and Rubin had mellowed just enough since 1968 to accept the nominee of a mainstream party. Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Julie Christie were among the young Hollywood stars who backed McGovern. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was an enthusiastic supporter, and McGovern was the rare candidate regarded sympathetically by the magazine's hell-raising reporter and Robert Kennedy admirer Hunter S. Thompson, who called McGovern "the most honest big-time politician in America."
The rock community gave McGovern the kind of hip cachet that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would later receive. Simon & Garfunkel, who had broken up in 1970, reunited to perform on McGovern's behalf. Country Joe McDonald, known for his profane anti-war "Fish Cheer," also sang for him. The popular band Chicago was so dedicated that cultural historian Peter Doggett, in his book "There's a Riot Going On," referred to their 1972 tour as "virtually a McGovern roadshow, with every concert offering voter registration booths and Democratic propaganda."
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