George McGovern will be remembered chiefly as the first of several liberals to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and lose the general election in spectacular fashion. But the 90-year-old former senator from South Dakota was a great deal more than that.
For one thing, McGovern is credited, or blamed, with turning the Democrats into the party of “amnesty, acid, and abortion.” Whatever his views on acid and amnesty—he was legitimately the candidate of the counterculture and the antiwar movement—McGovern actually resisted creating the party of abortion.
A devout Methodist, McGovern’s 1972 position on abortion was somewhat nuanced (much like his church’s). He was broadly in favor of letting states set abortion policy, a stance that aligned him with pro-choice activists before Roe v. Wade but is more closely aligned with pro-lifers today.
When liberals at the ‘72 Democratic National Convention—many of them McGovern delegates—tried to add a strong pro-choice plank to the party platform, the presidential nominee balked. McGovern’s first pick for vice president, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, was pro-life. So was his second, Sargent Shriver, after controversy forced Eagleton to bow out.
Shriver and Eagleton were the last openly pro-life candidates on a national Democratic ticket. Jimmy Carter had to mute his antiabortion sympathies; Al Gore and Joe Biden had to repudiate theirs. In his book The Party of Death, pro-life author Ramesh Ponnuru described McGovern as “not very pro-abortion.”
Yet McGovern did inadvertently play a key role in making the Democratic Party more accepting of abortion. He chaired a 1968 commission bearing his name that sought to “democratize” the process by which delegates to the party’s national convention were selected. The idea was to reduce the power of the party bosses and remaining urban political machines.
The local party bosses were replaced with effective quotas for women, minorities, and young people, who in some cases were able to supplant the old machines and create new ones. Whether this new process was more democratic was open to debate—quotas suggest the outcomes were at least partially ordained and the old machines at least answered to bigger, more representative constituencies than the ideological activists who supplanted them—but the practical impact was to dilute the power of Northeastern ethnics and Southern Protestants for the benefit of secularists and feminists.
As the Catholic journalist Mark Stricherz wrote in his book Why the Democrats Are Blue, these changes played an instrumental role in pushing the party to the left on abortion and a whole range of social issues. This wasn’t inevitable. Such leading 1960s Democrats as Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie were pro-life; younger liberals like Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson also initially opposed abortion.
While some of the party’s erstwhile social conservatism had been driven by Southern Democrats, who had been losing influence since Harry Truman took a strong stand against Jim Crow at the 1948 convention, many Catholic Democrats supported civil rights for blacks—and unborn children. As Stricherz pointed out to an interviewer, “the party from 1948 to 1968 was controlled by white Catholics, especially Irish Catholics.”
The post-McGovern Commission Democratic Party was more diverse in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity. But diverse viewpoints were never the objective. The rules changes facilitated the adoption of a platform that supported abortion and, to name the answer to a 1970s trivia question, the Equal Rights Amendment.
McGovern was supportive of feminism in general, even if he didn’t agree with the feminists on all political issues. As late as 2008, he supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the identity-politics contest otherwise known as the Democratic presidential primaries because the party should politely remember, as he put it, “ladies first.”
After his early reluctance, McGovern would go on to compile a pro-choice voting record in the post-Roe Senate. His party would ultimately embrace abortion with taxpayer funding and virtually no limits, deleting even the “safe, legal, and rare” qualifiers preferred by former McGovern lieutenant Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign.
While the Gallup poll showed increasing movement toward the pro-life position in recent years, McGovern’s old party would defend partial-birth abortion and nominate a presidential candidate who quibbled with Illinois legislation protecting children who had survived attempted abortions.
Just as George McGovern the war hero probably never thought he would wind up a peace candidate, McGovern the economically focused liberal likely never envisioned himself a culture warrior. His role in the sorting of the two parties on social issues was accidental, yet not entirely unanticipated.
The provenance of the “acid, amnesty, and abortion” epithet has been widely disputed, but it is believed to have first been quoted in a column by the late journalist Robert Novak. In his memoirs, Novak revealed he got the line from Thomas Eagleton—McGovern’s first, pro-life running mate.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a contributing editor to The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.