Jean Miles Westwood, who died in 1997, made U.S. political history by becoming the first woman to chair one of the two American political party's national committees for the Democrats. (She succeeded John F. Kennedy intimate Larry O'Brien.)
Westwood was a Mormon woman who grew up in Price and lived in West Jordan when she became politically active after she and her husband, Dick Westwood, created a successful mink-farming business. When Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, a political unknown, became a candidate to run for U.S. president in 1972, she joined his campaign as co-chairman, an unprecedented accomplishment for a Utahn.
When Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine, the Democratic front-runner, folded under the unprecedented "dirty-tricks" campaign of Republican Richard Nixon, McGovern was able to win the nomination. Because the Nixon campaign committed criminal acts, the presidential campaign of 1972 became perhaps the most corrupt in the nation's history.
Nixon's determination was to publicly ignore McGovern altogether, implying that his opponent was unworthy and in campaign speeches he never used McGovern's name. The Nixon tapes have since proved that Nixon worried a great deal about McGovern and spoke about him a great deal in private meetings. Nevertheless, Nixon defeated McGovern in a monumental landslide.
If Westwood was after name recognition in the 1970s, she hitched herself to the wrong horse. But McGovern liked her so well that he made her chairwoman of the National Democratic Party, where her influence was considerable and her success perfectly coincided with the popularity of the national women's movement.
The massive corruption called Watergate would quickly follow, dooming Nixon's presidency.
That's why her autobiography, "Madame Chair," completed late in life, is so interesting and useful to students of politics and feminism. In fact, Floyd O'Neil and Gregory Thompson, both University of Utah history professors, conducted 40 hours of interviews with Westwood, which they consider "one of the most remarkable" of more than a thousand oral histories on which they collaborated.
Westwood's accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering she suffered a variety of serious health problems, including strokes and depression, over her entire life.
She writes about her unusual life in a candid, colorful way, providing an unusual perspective on a strange political chapter in American history.And for Utahns, most of whom were unsympathetic with the Democratic nominee, Westwood's account presents a portrait of McGovern as a man of sincerity, generosity and ability.
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