How Centrist Democrats Backstabbed George McGovern

Centrist Democrats provided lackluster support for their Party's ostensible Presidential candidate, the late Senator George McGovern, during the 1972 election campaign. McGovern, who died on Sunday, October 21, went on to lose to Republican Richard M. Nixon, who was re-elected by a huge margin and was again sworn into office in January 1973. That was not the end of the story, however. And it's not just about the Watergate scandal. In 1972 few Democratic Party leaders or state officials took the McGovern Presidential campaign seriously until he won the Democratic Party nomination in a surprise upset.

After the election, the anti-McGovern forces in the Democratic Party began to organize to move the Party back to the political "center." They went on to wrest control of the Party apparatus away from the McGovernites, with the finishing touches on centralizing Party power taking place, appropriately, in 1984. The Centrists feared the Democratic Party under McGovern had been taken over by anti-war activists, political left ideologues, and Civil Rights Movement activists. The Centrists reconfigured the internal Democratic Party procedures so that a popular democracy-oriented movement would have a harder time electing progressives inside the Democratic Party.

The legacy of this internal political coup is that today the Democratic Party is still largely controlled by centrists who are reluctant to pursue the serious institutional reforms needed to change the political system so that it is no longer controlled by wealthy elites and their supporters.

This is the ideological straightjacket into which President Barack Obama has been fitted, and helps explain why the Democratic Party campaign to re-elect President Obama has seemed so pallid and weak on so many issues. McGovern was an anti-war candidate, called for the inclusion of diverse sectors of American society within the Democratic Party leadership, and had a fierce commitment to social justice.

This agenda is unthinkable inside the Democratic Party today, even with a Black President at the helm.

The story begins in late 1972 when a senior advisor on the McGovern Presidential campaign staff was exposed as having a stash of audio tapes detailing illegal activities involving the Justice Department and a faction inside the Teamsters union. The senior advisor was Walter Sheridan, who had a long career in government investigate services and was widely known as a person who specialized in wiretaps and other forms of covert surveillance. Sheridan was a member of the Justice Department’s investigation of Teamster Union leader Jimmy Hoffa, who held office during a period of widespread corruption and cooperation with the Mob. Hoffa was convicted, then released by Nixon, then mysteriously disappeared. Hoffa’s body has never been found.

If the tapes in Sheridan’s possession had been made public prior to the 1972 election, President Nixon, his aides, and fundraisers would almost certainly have been indicted for crimes before the election took place. In 1973 the Sheridan tapes and other information were presented to the Congressional Watergate hearing investigators. It became clear that Teamster operatives had made a secret cash contribution of some $175,000 to the Nixon re-election campaign. As Nixon’s illegal fundraising and other criminal activities were exposed, he was forced to resign as President.

Sheridan’s tapes were discovered inadvertently in 1972 by a McGovern campaign volunteer Bobby Lewis. Lewis was an itinerant mechanical genius who could fix almost any office machine on the spot with no prior experience with repairs on the broken machine. Lewis, while working at the McGovern campaign headquarters in the Watergate complex, had grabbed an audio tape cassette he saw in Sheridan’s office to record music, and then realized it already had been recorded on. After listening to the tape, he took it to his religious mentor, and asked what to do. Lewis was told it would be appropriate to take it to the media. Lewis began to take the Sheridan tape to journalists across Washington, DC. A few were interested, but could not get permission from their editors to pursue the story. Eventually, in 1973, Lewis ended up at my desk at College Press Service on S Street N.W. I interviewed Lewis, verified his claims, and eventually became friends with him.

After days of repeated phone calls, I interviewed Sheridan who confirmed the tape was his, said he had been using the tapes at the McGovern campaign headquarters to write a book about Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, denied that the tapes were illegal wiretaps, and refused to discuss why he did not make public the tapes he had in his possession before the election when it would have benefited McGovern. Sheridan died in 1995.

I first revealed this illegal Teamster/Nixon deal in November, 1973, during the Watergate investigation into illegal activities by Nixon and his re-election campaign. The first article I wrote appeared in Washington, DC’s alternative weekly, The Daily Rag. Other reporters jumped on the story and independently verified the charges about the Teamsters. My article detailed information later verified publically by the Watergate Committee.

During 1973 and 1974 Nixon’s lies collapsed as they were probed by criminal investigators and eventually the Congressional Watergate Impeachment hearings. President Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974. While much attention was paid to Nixon, the Republicans, and the Watergate story, the sellout of the McGovern Presidential campaign by Democratic Party centrists was swept under the rug. That the story about Sheridan and his tapes was adopted by conspiracy theorists and linked by them to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy virtually ensured that no responsible media outlet would touch the story.

The story of how McGovern was betrayed by centrist Democrats who rebuilt the internal procedures of the Party to favour wealthy elites, corporate interests, and militarism deserves to be told in the context of McGovern’s recent death. I was a McGovern campaign volunteer in 1972, organizing college students in Colorado, and coordinating automobile transportation for McGovern’s visit to Fort Collins and Denver. I interviewed McGovern during his campaign swing through Colorado, covered the Colorado delegation at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.

Back in Colorado with the core group of leftist college students and other progressives, we watched as centrists in the Colorado Democratic Party took back the campaign organizing from us volunteers who had garnered the Colorado delegation’s support for McGovern through state-wide precinct organizing. For example, my friend Ed Stein and I wanted to distribute leaflets supporting the McGovern Presidential bid on college campuses through a network we had already built. The Democratic Party officials in Colorado told us we would have to wait for an official leaflet. We waited weeks, and despite repeated phone calls and office visits, we never received a leaflet.

Ed, a cartoonist and graphic artist, designed a leaflet and together we wrote the copy. (Ed Stein went on to become the editorial cartoonist for the Rocky Mountain News.) We printed thousands of copies on the press at College Press Service headquarters in Denver, and shipped it out to over a dozen campuses where it was distributed by volunteers. For our efforts we were reprimanded and banned form the official McGovern Colorado campaign headquarters.

In October 2004 my wife Karen and I were invited to the premiere of Stephen Vittoria’s acclaimed film documentary about McGovern, “One Bright Shining Moment,” in which I appear briefly with several short comments, including the claim that McGovern never got the full support of the Democratic Party leadership. All the people at the premier who played a role in the film sat together with George McGovern, and later we all went out to dinner together. During dinner I had a chance to ask McGovern if he ever knew about the Sheridan tapes. He said yes, but that he learned about them after the election. I asked why they were not used in the campaign by the Democratic Party. He just shrugged and said it was now all in the past.

George McGovern was always an honorable man.

The centrist Democrats are only honorable in the sense of Shakespeare’s rendition of a Mark Antony eulogy.  

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