The 1972 Democratic Convention was one of the most contentious in the party’s recent history, with various non- or anti-establishment wings of the party causing enough debate and disruption to delay George McGovern’s speech, in which he finally accepted the party’s nomination for president, until nearly 3 in the morning. This convention was 4 years after Robert Kennedy’s run for the Democratic nomination (which ended in his assassination) caused a great deal of tension in the party.

EJ Dionne ’73, then a senior Social Studies Concentrator at Harvard College and a contributor to the HPR, attended the convention as an alternate for the Massachusetts delegation. He writes about the tension within the various informal caucuses, especially among women and minorities, and the context of the Democratic Convention within American politics, generally.


At the Credentials Committee hearings in Washington, I saw a man who resembled more than anyone else on the Committee a United States Senator. He was tall with graying blonde hair, very patient looking.

On the floor of the convention, I told him that, and discovered he was an old railroad worker who was now head of the North Dakota AFL-CIO. He talked about union organizing and the struggles of the North Dakota Democratic Party.

Miami Beach stands for everything the Democrats were supposed to be against. Its gaudy hotels and expensive restaurants are symbols of the worst form of conspicuous consumption. In a remarkable documentary on the Miami Beach scene during the Republican Convention, David Brinkley commented, “And this is what they think money is for!” George McGovern has noted that the businessman’s lunch of martinis and steak is tax deductible while the working man himself must pay for his bologna sandwiches. People take a lot of tax deductions in Miami.

But during the Democratic Convention, there was a lot of bologna sandwich eaters in the gaudy town. True, the Democrats assembled were on the average richer and better educated than their countrymen at large. But they were much less so than the super-rich at the G.O.P. convention—the story of which was largely written on the social pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

More importantly, the Convention provided a picture of the social conflicts racking America. In one room were northern Wallace supporters, largely working class and angry about busing, and southern Wallacites, representatives of the old Southern party to some degree, but still much more in touch with “the people” than the Bourbon Democrats of times past. There were varieties of blacks and Spanish-speaking people, soe militant, some more traditionally political. There were a lot of women of all stripes, some gay delegates, and, of course, a lot of the New Politics types, ranging from the “purist” variety to the more “practical.”

All these people got a lot of publicity. This was supposed to be a “new” convention, and many of these people were new to the convention process. Equally significant, but receiving far less media coverage, were the Old Democrats, the ethnic minorities and the labor people and the urban regulars who had formed the backbone of FDR’s political power. They were there, too, although in slightly smaller numbers than before; some of them were even McGovern delegates. To a surprising degree this was a People’s Convention. the debates over busing and tax reform, gay lib and abortion, Israel and the Defense posture were very real and heated. Archie Bunker could watch the Convention—if he stayed awake long enough–and see a guy there speaking for him. So could a poor black man. So could a suburban woman. And that’s why this was convention was different from a lot of conventions, and certainly different from the Republican Convention.

The vote was on whether to suspend the rules to permit a Compromise proposal on seating the Chicago delegation. The McGovern high command was hoping it would pass. I was talking to a friend, explaining why I would vote yes–saying something about both states not being too good, that while the Daley delegation “underrepresented” blacks and women, the Singer slate “underrepresented” Poles and Italians, and that a compromise would be both right and practical.

A suburban woman seated in front of us turned around and shouted “The Black Caucus Says to Vote Nooooo!”

“The Hell With The Black Caucus!” shouted a man from somewhere in the rear.

Three important issue emerged from the Convention: [minority and gender] quotas, the ability of the McGovern forces to “control” their delegates, and the broader questions of who would control the Democratic Party of the future.

Quotas are a tough question, obviously. In a recent issue of Commentary, a number of writers intimated that a major reason behind Jewish defections from McGovern (defections which will probably be less significant by the time election day rolls around) is the decision of the McGovern Commission to impose guidelines and of the Convention to enforce them.

Over the long run, quotas may have a deleterious effect, excluding from positions of power qualified people of one racial, ethnic, or sex group so as to bring into top positions representatives of previously excluded groups. On the other hand (argue quota proponents), quotas may be only a short term necessity. Once our institutions compensate for past injustices by quota enforcement, further quotas will be unnecessary. Adequate representation of minorities and women will just become part of our way of life.

Quotas are not as radical a departure from the American political tradition as some would have us believe. It is not a new thing to balance slates of delegates or slates of candidates for any office in accordance with the ethnic makeup of an area. Who can remember a slate of candidates for city-wide office in New York that didn’t have one Jew, one Italian, and one Irishman? (John Lindsay is, of course, the exception, but his slates were balanced, too. In 1965, he ran with a Jew and an Irishman; in 1969 with a Jew and an Italian. New York City slates in recent years have included Lefkowitz-Fino-Gilhooley; Beame-Procaccino-O’Connor; Procaccino-Beame-Smith.) Thus, ethnic balancing has been around ever since ethnic groups became a serious political force.

The McGovern Commission guidelines did exactly what they were intended to do: they resulted in increased representation for minorities and women and young people at this year’s convention. At times, the mad search for “the black woman who is under 30” may have appeared both ludicrous (cherchez la femme) and at least a trifle hypocritical. But because of this years convention, it appears unlikely that the previously underrepresented groups will ever have to face barriers as large as those which they faced before—at least as Convention politics is concerned.

This is not to say that the quota question is resolved. It isn’t, as George McGovern has learned. In this year’s convention, the quotas probably worked most against the urban Catholics McGovern desperately needs to win back to the Democratic banner. To be sure, urban Catholics were better represented than most accounts of the Convention would have us believe. Many McGovern delegates were Catholic, and heated arguments on the floor over abortion and other issues between Catholic and non-Catholic delegates indicated that these liberal Papists were not just a new variety of “Uncle Toms.” Still, urban ethnics were hurt some by the quotas, and McGovern’s recent statements on aid to parochial schools, along with Sargent Shriver’s speeches (written by ethnic power enthusiast Michael Novak), indicate that the McGovern campaign is feeling the effects of this problem.

The original cover art on our Fall 1972 magazine.

The original cover art on our Fall 1972 magazine.

Will guidelines be instituted again? This is an open, and difficult, question. Whether the “extra kick” provided by the guidelines this year will prove to be enough to render them unnecessary again is unclear. That some barriers have been broken down is obvious. That most have fallen is questionable. And since the quota issue extends far beyond the Convention to construction sites and universities among other places, it is likely that race and sex guidelines for the next Convention will receive more attention than did the McGovern Commission’s report this year.

McGovern’s “control” over his delegates was based largely on loyalty to the McGovern organization. Old-time party bosses could threaten a delegate with the loss of his city job (or his wife’s or his brother-in-law’s) if the delegate didn’t tow the machine line. The McGovern delegate was in Miami for reasons having more to do with general agreement with McGovern on issues. McGovern floor managers knew this, and on questions like abortion and the $6500 guaranteed income, they handled rebellious delegations like New York and Massachusetts with kid gloves. On those issues and others, the line wasn’t “Vote this way or else” but “Vote your conscience.”

The most critical vote in terms of whom the Democrats were going to nominate came on the South Carolina challenge. For most McGovernites, it appeared to be a simple issue. Women were greatly underrepresented on the delegation, and the vote would decide whether or not to add more women.

The problem was this: McGovernites were primarily concerned with winning back the 151 California delegates the Credentials Committee had taken away from them. Larry O’Brien, Chairman of the Convention, had ruled earlier that only a majority of those delegates voting on the challenge was required, not an absolute majority of the entire convention. Simply stated, this meant that the McGovernites needed only 1433 votes, instead of 1509, to win back the California delegates. McGovern forces were fearful that if the vote on South Carolina fell between the “critical range,” i.e. a majority of those voting, but not an absolute majority of the Convention, anti-McGovern delegates could challenge O’Brien’s ruling. And on this challenge, the anti-McGovern California delegates could vote. All of which meant that a narrow win on South Carolina could have been a massive defeat for the McGovern cause. Therefore, McGovern’s managers waited to win with more than 1509, or lose big.

The McGovernites decided a little more than half-way through the roll call that they were going to win or lose narrowly. Therefore, they decided to switch enough delegates from “Yes” to “No” to insure overwhelming defeat on South Carolina, and thereby render moot the question of a majority. The McGovern high command had received assurances from “reliable” McGovern delegates all over the floor that they would be willing to switch their votes if necessary. They did, the South Carolina challenge lost, and McGovern won. The crunch would have come if enough anti-McGovern delegates had switched their votes to “Yes” in order to counterbalance the McGovern switches. Whether a sufficient number of McGovernites would have been willing to eat their “principles” in order to insure the nomination of McGovern is an interesting question (the answer to which, I think, is yes). Suffice it to say that enough McGovernites were willing to be “disciplined” to allow the Senator to win his tactical victory on South Carolina.

Who will control the Democratic Party? This question was critical in the vote not to seat Mayor Daley. Clearly the MCGovern victory was in part a victory for middle- and upper middle-class liberals who, like the New York City reform Democrats in the early sixties, see the machines based on white ethnic solidarity and patronage as being un-Democratic and outmoded. Perhaps more importantly, these same middle-class liberals do not see the machines as representing their interests or aspirations.

Conservatives and some radicals have labeled these liberals as “New Elitists.” There is some truth to these charges. Certainly some McGovern delegates appeared more sympathetic to the demands of blacks than those of white working people. And certainly the New Politics people will want party power in the future.

But it is also true that the reforms sought by Mcgovern and most of his delegates are not of the sort which will benefit rich liberals and blacks to the disadvantage of the white working class. In fact, McGovern’s most telling isse during the primaries was his tax reform-welfare reform plan. Its basic premise was that the working man is unjustifiably paying the cost of both social reform and a bloated military budget. Mcgovern and most of his delegates know that this program will pass not because rich liberals supping want martinis want it—it is important to realize that most of the martini crowd is not liberal—but because the man eating the bologna sandwich wants it. The problem McGovern faces in the general election is how to get the man eating the bologna sandwich to vote for these reforms now, as he did during the primaries.

As the seventy-year-old Wayne Morse walked out of the last session of the Convention, he turned to a friend and said, “You know this is the first Convention I’ve ever seen where the delegates on the floor actually made decisions.”

The people of American spoke in the presidential primaries with a divided voice. Wallace and McGovern did well because voters perceived them as the candidates most against “things as they are.”

The Democratic Convention was what it should have been: a gripe session where people said what they thought of each other and of the state of the country. The terms of the debate were based not on some flightly conception of the “national interest” and the main focus of attention was not on the the “great decisions” of party leaders, past or present. The debate was over what is in the interest of Wallace’s “ordinary citizen” or McGovern’s “average American.” There was a fairly broad agreement at the Convention over several premises: that America should withdraw quickly from Vietnam, that the working man shouldn’t pay the rich man’s taxes, that the planned unemployment is cruel foolishness.

The Democratic Party had faced these issues when last in control of the White House, and it had attempted to resolve them by traditional means. But it failed. In early 1972 the polls showed that Americans were now willing to support at least a slight departure from traditional paths in order to find solutions. Not only did MCGovern do well in the primaries, but a May, 1972, Gallup poll showed him seven percentage points behind the President (48-41). The delegates in Miami clearly represented the sentiments of more than the 25 or 30 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the primaries.

So far the Republicans have been able to exploit the divisions which were so clear in Miami. “No higher taxes” rather than tax reform is the bigger issue. McGovern’s credibility rather than Nixon’s credibility is the issue. McGovern’s task is to “come home” to the issues which worked for him in the primaries, and to bring the voters with him. President Nixon has attempted to make Welfarism and busing the major issues of the campaign. The crucial test for McGovern—and for all those who have preached the New Populism—is to prove that the salient issues of the American working man are not those of race, but of economic justice.

Despite its shortcomings, the Democratic Convention was more of a People’s Convention than the G.O.P. gathering. McGovern supporters must now show that their candidate will be more of a People’s President.


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