August 26, 2002

McGovern vs. Tricky Dick, i...

McGovern vs. Tricky Dick, in Hindsight -- an Interactive Thought Experiment: I've got a question for you Republicans and non-Democrats out there: If it were November 1972, and you knew everything we know now about Richard Nixon, who would you vote for president? Please respond in the comments box, and feel free to explain yourself (or not).

Posted by at August 26, 2002 04:16 PM

If I knew "everything we know now" about Nixon? I think an argument could be made that he did good work with opening to China and continuing detente -- things that McGovern couldn't have done, ever.

So I guess I'd have to get a sheet of paper and put down "Pro for Nixon" and "Con for Nixon" and start filling it out ... I guess you'd weigh the past 40 years of foreign affairs with our two greatest enemies, versus the national trauma of Watergate.

Me, I'd probably still vote for Nixon. I was born about two months before the election in '72, so I wasn't there to see what Watergate and its aftermath was like. But if one can compare Monicagate with Watergate ... after the Senate decided not to remove Clinton from office, I was disappointed, but rather relieved and proud of our constitutional system working the way it was supposed to work. It was an incredible civics lesson that left me proud to be American.

I'm not sure Watergate would have been the same, because since Nixon, we all expect our politicians to be lying scumbags until proven otherwise ... what that was like the first time, I don't know.

So there. I'm voting for Nixon.

Posted by: paul at August 26, 2002 06:07 PM

Thanks for the candor, Paul. Keep 'em coming, everyone!

Posted by: Matt Welch at August 26, 2002 06:18 PM

I'd still would've voted for Nixon. The reasoning is simple. Jimmy Carter was, without a doubt, the worst president of the 20th century. George McGovern would've been even worse than Smilin' Jimmy. Case closed.

Posted by: Dave Crawford at August 26, 2002 06:50 PM

Some choice; One of the biggest leftist/socialist idealogues to ever crawl out under a rock vs. McGovern. Weren't there any other options?

Posted by: J. Karl Armstrong at August 26, 2002 07:48 PM

If it were November 1972, I'd have other things on my mind than the Presidential election.

Posted by: PBR at August 26, 2002 08:06 PM

If the LP was around then, I'd probably vote for them (they started in the '70s I think but I forget which year). If not, I'd skip it.

Posted by: Henry Hanks at August 26, 2002 08:10 PM

anyone remember...Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion

Posted by: seth at August 26, 2002 08:33 PM

oh, i've posted this thread on my blog, ... if anyone is interested. it's very new and not well known. feel free to hit the poor blueberry imac that is my server.

Posted by: paul at August 26, 2002 08:42 PM

Oooh - sneaky question which, reading between the lines, is really asking "How far are you prepared to let Ashcroft go?".

I have a feeling that americans would vote for the devil they know, rather than one that disappeared into obscurity. They'd kid themselves that, this time, they could keep a better eye on Nixon and his Spooks and trust him not to be naughty again. His infamy is his legacy, but I'm sure we'd be reminded by his supporters that - despite everything - he was quite an effective President in many ways, wasn't he?

What the hell do I know - I was a ten-year old kid in a foreign country in 1972. All I remember of McGovern is that he was balding and "husky", like Homer Simpson. Everybody knows Nixon.

Posted by: trevora at August 26, 2002 10:30 PM

Good question, Matt. I'll avoid it by noting that I am not a Republican. Nonetheless, the query reminded me of a quandary that I faced in 1991 when I still lived in New Orleans. Thieves and politicians are indistinguishable in Louisiana, and Edwin Edwards was a maestro in crookedness. (He was the politician known for saying that he would be re-elected unless he was found in bed with a dead woman or a live boy). I despised Edwards and his cronyism; he and his ilk just embarrassed the state and depressed the economy. YET -- there I was in 1991, wearing "Edwin Edwards for Governor" t-shirts, campaigning for him on the streets of N.O., contributing to a political ad supporting him. Why? Because the alternative was beyond contempt: David Duke. So, sometimes, a person has to hold his or her nose and make the horrible choice. Not voting is a vote for the worst candidate.

Posted by: Peggy at August 26, 2002 10:57 PM

Peggy -- All you have to be is a non-Democrat to take part....

Trevora -- Actually, my purpose for this exercise is A) general curiosity, and B) to see if there's anything applicable to the California governor's race this year. I am a non-partisan liberal, and I think Gray Davis is the most dangerous California politician since Richard Nixon. Setting aside for the moment whether *that* belief is itself accurate, I wanted to see whether a governing politician's open abuse of power was enough to shake the party faithful, and/or the people horrified at the opposition party/candidate.

I am contemplating a vote for Bill Simon on a throw-the-bum-out, he's-crossed-the-line-of-decency, Republicans-for-McGovern basis. It is interesting to note that so far, based on this tiny self-selected polling sample, not a single non-Democrat has taken a similar retroactive approach to voting out Richard Nixon.

Please -- don't let this explanation keep you from adding your two cents' worth, and don't attack my analogy, since I don't have the time or inclination to argue with any of you. I think these reactions are all really interesting, and I appreciate them.

Posted by: Matt Welch at August 27, 2002 12:22 AM

I would either vote for McGovern, or stay home and not vote at all. I would have to think a long time about it before I decided which. But I would not vote for Nixon.

Presidents who commit felonies should not be elected.

George McGovern was an honorable and decent man. Policy-wise, I would agree with very little that he advocated. Yet, when you look at Nixon's domestic accomplishments, I can't say they're anything different than McGovern would have done. Nixon wound up signing just about everything a McGovern-style congress put in front of him anyway. So how much difference would it have made? I'll take honest, honorable, and decent over cynicism and dishonesty any day of the week.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at August 27, 2002 02:51 AM

I voted for Nixon in '68 after the Democratic Party fell apart. Four years, however, had raised such a stink of corruption in the air that I could neither vote for someone, uh, "pragmatic" like Nixon, nor an amiable (but completely out-of-touch) candidate like George McGovern. So I confess: I didn't vote in '72....

Posted by: javelisj at August 27, 2002 06:15 AM

Well, I voted for McGovern and have regretted it ever since. (In defense, I can say that I knew he would lose.) Very simply, a crook is often better than a fool. Whatever Nxon's faults, he was an intelligent realist, who improved our strategic position, after a long period of decline. It is true that his domestic policies were mostly wrong, but I give him great credit for finally getting southern schools desegregated.

Posted by: Jim Miller at August 27, 2002 06:17 AM

To answer the question raised above: Yes, the Libertarian Party existed in 1972. As noted on, they held their first national convention that year and nominated John Hospers. That site also remarks that Tonie Nathan, their vice-presidential candidate, was "the first woman in U.S. history to receive an electoral vote."

I liked the post that observed that the 1972 election offered the choice between "one of the biggest leftist/socialist idealogues to ever crawl out under a rock vs. McGovern," but nobody else seemed to notice.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at August 27, 2002 06:45 AM

The first response that came into my head was "Better a crook than a clueless idiot fantasy-world dweller." Then I read all the responses----I guess it's true: Great Minds Think Alike ;-)

I'd have to vote for Nixon again. Alas, as Sowell said, "We can only make our choices amoung the alternates actually available to us, no matter how many other actions we _wish_ were available."

McGovern's subsequent activities confirmed my assessment of him. Even after he had been driven into bankrupcy trying to run a business--which he correctly attributed to mindless regulations--he *still* couldn't make the connection, and *still* believed that left-wing regulation & control was a good thing.

Posted by: fred at August 27, 2002 06:48 AM

Hmmmm . . . a tax-dodging, Jew-hating price-fixer vs. a soak the rich champion of unilateral disarmament?

I'd have voted for Dr. Spock, who ran a third-party campaign that year (on the Peace and Freedom ticket, I think). His positions were even further left than McGovern, but at least Spock was a professional in treating people like children.

Posted by: Brian at August 27, 2002 07:03 AM


I think one of the problems w/ your gedanken experiment is that you're trying to plumb the depths of a gubernatorial race by looking at a Presidential race.

Many of the commentators here point to Nixon's foreign policy (and McGovern's) as justifying their vote for Nixon as President. Nothing wrong w/ that, but it's something Davis, Reagan, Brown, etc., have no counterpart to.

Thus, perhaps a better question (in drawing parallels) is whether, given what we now know of Nixon's domestic politics and policies (including creation of various agencies, wage&price controls, etc.), whether they would still vote for Nixon on a DOMESTIC policy basis, versus McGovern. I wonder if you might not get different answers?

[Says a person who was too young to vote in '72, but is a foreign policy maven.]

Posted by: Dean at August 27, 2002 07:13 AM

Can you bring yourself to vote for an incompetent incumbent you despise, or should you vote for his untried dim-witted non-voting spoon-fed nil-charisma reactionary opponent - and all without the benefit of thirty years hindsight?

Tough choice - but aren't they all tough choices after Nixon? Singapore Davis is a money-grubbing sleazebag in office who has been shown to be easy meat for predatory corporations - energy corporations, database corporations, defense company middlemen, whatever - but who also has been ill-served by a gormless state senate who's half-arsed energy deregulation effectively "tipped him the spot", to recall Long John Silver.

Simon on the other hand has nothing going for him except that he's untried. Hell, he hasn't even bothered to vote in past elections. His companies
*have* robbed your granny, so you know up-front what to expect from him if he ever gets Office?

Like I said, tough choice, pal. Davis has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Simon's advantage is that he can still claim he'll surprise us. Nixon reminds us he probably won't.

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss".

Posted by: trevora at August 27, 2002 09:03 AM

Given the single greatest challenge/issue prior to 9/11 was our conflict with the USSR, and given my feeling that McGovern would have so weakened us in relation to the USSR, making Reagan's defeat of communism almost impossible, I think I would have to go with Nixon. At least Nixon understood the communists and stood up to them. And his thawing of relations with China helped increase the pressure on Russia to spend more on its military.

Given that, I would vote for Nixon.

Since there is no comparable issue in the California race, and since I agree that Davis is a crook who screwed this state over royally on the ele I'll probably hold my nose and vote for Simon. Davis needs to be punished.

Which brings the analogy around to this point: If Watergate had happened during Nixon's first term (and, in a way, it did), then I would have been more inclined to vote for McGovern. (If Watergate had happened during the first term, would the Dems have been smart enough to nominate a more mainstream candidate -- somebody with a better chance of wooing the "silent majority"?)

(I'm a non-aligned, non-partisan conservative).

Posted by: Howard Owens at August 27, 2002 09:06 AM

This is all very interesting. Thanks, everybody!

Posted by: Matt Welch at August 27, 2002 09:40 AM

If I were in California today I wouldn't vote for Davis, whether I shared his politics or not, that's for sure.

Posted by: Henry Hanks at August 27, 2002 10:56 AM

Nixon is the greatest embarrassment the Republican Party has ever had or likely ever will have. He fits every stereotype imagineable: a mean-spirited, racist, homophobic, liar, willing to subvert the government and the ideals of the U. S. Constitution for his own personal gain. Besides, he gave us affirmative action, the Environmental Protection Agency, Medicare and price-fixing--could McGovern have done worse? I would vote for George, at least he was (and still is) a decent man, and I don't see how his withdrawal from Viet Nam would have been any more disastrous than that of Nixon-Ford.

Posted by: richard thompson at August 27, 2002 10:58 AM

Thanks Patrick.

Posted by: Henry Hanks at August 27, 2002 11:03 AM

I turned 18 on 28 July 1972. That was about a month after the military draft ended. Whew! Also I was in the first group to get to vote at age eighteen(1972). Previously you had to be 21 to vote.

I did not trust Nixon because even in Mayor Daley's Chicago, where I grew up, they (the Trib/Sun Times/Daily News) reported the Watergate stuff right away. But I despised that whole McGovern Democratic party "Peace now" theme. It was strongly reminiscent of the 1950's Soviet-style "peace" campaigns. Communist-inspired? Yes, it was. And sustained by the fear young men had of going to Vietnam.(me too). So what happened? I voted for Gus Hall, the Communist party candidate, as I knew he would never be elected. (My first protest vote and possibly not my last given the twits who are seeking office nowadays).

All you conservatives don't get all whiney- I served four years in the Army later on after I droped out of college.

Anyway I can say I didn't foist Nixon on our nation and now I can joke with my Republican/Democrat/libertarian friends-acquaintances-relatives that I started out far-left and turned into a quasi-moderate. Supposedly that was Nixon's political stance at the time. Scary, huh? But I view civil rights and the constitution as extremely important. That's why as a leaning-towards-Republican I am very uncomfortable with Bush and this goofy terror war and potential attack on Iraq. I don't think that I will vote for him again.

Posted by: Jack Denny at August 27, 2002 11:23 AM

Jack -- In the Dept. of Useless Information, you are almost the same age as Steven Den Beste:

Posted by: Matt Welch at August 27, 2002 11:49 AM

This comment is actually from Jesse Walker of Reason, who can't make this comments box work on his browser:

"Between the two of them -- i.e., excluding all third-party options -- I'd pick McGovern. Of course, I'd prefer him anyway, despite all his
flaky ideas: The big issue in 1972 was Vietnam, and on that one I'd be with George."

Posted by: Matt Welch at August 27, 2002 11:56 AM

I started to write a comment, but it got too long, so I ended up blogging it instead.

Posted by: Rand Simberg at August 27, 2002 12:00 PM

As not yet a gleam in my parents' eye in 1972, I think I'm ill-qualified to comment on Nixon-McGovern, but I'll throw my 2 cents in on Davis/Simon, and you can delete the comment if it's out of place. Davis=apparent crooked Governor. Simon=apparent shady businessman. I guess I'm supporting Simon despite his shadiness, primarily because it gets rid of Davis. Perhaps there's a blessing in the fact that Simon lacks the sort of political connectedness that may have helped Davis to slide through some of his sketchier dealings. Maybe a neophyte governor lacking an entrenched political apparatus is just what this state needs! So I'm casting my vote and hoping for government ineffectiveness!

Posted by: Sean Anderson at August 27, 2002 12:03 PM

I couldn't bring myself to vote for either Nixon or McGovern back in '72, and after the revelations of the last thirty years, I still couldn't.

Posted by: Dave D. at August 27, 2002 04:02 PM

Nixon was not the man he has been made out to be over the years. I've read much of what he wrote, and I've found him to be an incredibly intelligent and, perish the thought, humble man. His book "Leaders" made me realize I should be a History major when I was in college, way back in the 80s. When I graduated in 1988, I spent the summer writing a fictional account of a terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers that I self published. I sent a copy to Richard Nixon, who sent me a very warm and encouraging letter. I went to his Presidential Library to see his body lying (laying...whatever) in state and wrote an article about that experience that my hometown paper in Massachusetts published. I was proud to have met so many regular folks who counted themselves among the Silent Majority. Richard Nixon was not a perfect man; then again I haven't met one yet. When I think of Nixon, I often think of the words of another of my heroes, Kurt Cobain: "Just because you're paranoid, don't mean they're not after you." Knowing what I know now, I would campaign for him, vote for him, and sing his praises at every chance. I've been a registered Republican since the morning of my 18th birthday. I've campaigned for Democrats when I felt they were more suited to jobs. I ride a bike to work every day, and I was arrested as part of a Critical Mass demonstration during the LA Democratic Convention in 2000. Just try and figure me out!

Posted by: Erik Smith at August 27, 2002 07:15 PM

As a roundabout answer to your question: I still have a cancelled check for my contribution to CREEP. That memento is very special to me!

Only a child of the 60's would know what that is.

Posted by: John J. Coupal at August 27, 2002 08:20 PM

Some of us were old enough to vote in 1972---it was the first election in which I was old enough to do so. I deliberately did not vote for any presidential candidate, although I did for candidates in all local, state, and Congressional races.

Why? McGovern was a goofy hippie fantasy come to life, pure and simple. But it was obvious long before Watergate that Nixon was a congenitally dishonest SOB (and anyone who thinks Nixon's post-presidential books are anything but self-serving fiction is only demonstrating their naiveté). Some choice, huh? But remember this lesson from your SATs: sometimes the correct answer to a multiple choice question is "none of the above."

Nixon's foreign policy consisted of "managing" our relationship with the USSR. For all of his supposed wisdom, he failed to recognize the rapidly growing weaknesses in the Soviet government that Reagan was able to successfully exploit. Moreover, Nixon as a domestic president was anything but conservative. Peacetime wage and price controls? Creation of the EPA? Embrace of Keynesian economics? Find a domestic conservative today who supports any of those initiatives. Nixon was all expedience and no common sense.

If you live in California and can't bring yourself to vote for Simon, then vote for someone else other than Davis. Based on his record, Phil Jackson would get my vote for governor!

Posted by: Harry at August 27, 2002 08:22 PM

I cast my first presidential vote for Nixon in '72. I remember my girlfriend calling me close to election time and saying, "Wait a minute, Nixon is fucking people over ...." Too bad I was interested in something besides her political acumen.

After thinking it over, though, I'd vote the same way. I've been something of a student of Nixon and his influence--the people he brought into government and the extension of his policies--still has a huge impact on this country. He was a terribly flawed giant, but he was a giant. I will always wonder if he would have been the same bitter, paranoid personality if he had won in '60.

Posted by: Will Vehrs at August 28, 2002 04:59 AM

Davis' sins are not much like Nixon's sins. And, there's also a difference between what we'd have gotten from McGovern and what we might get from Simon.

Because of that, I don't see how the "how would you vote in '72?" question has much relevance to the Davis-Simon question.

Or, are we simply assuming some sort of evil-equivalence?

Posted by: Andy Freeman at August 28, 2002 11:21 AM

Andy -- What'd I say about not arguing 'bout the analogy?

Still, it works (imperfectly) like this: In *my* mind, Davis abuses power, and demonstrates a lack of respect for the citizens he represents, in a way that reminds of Richard Nixon. Since I am a liberal (though my definition of that word is unlikely to mesh with most people's), many of Simon's beliefs and positions are anathema to mine. Still, the priority to me seems to be to remove the power-abuser from power, as a punishment & a protection. Therefore, I am likely to vote for whoever has the best chance of unseating him. Kind of like a modern-day non-Democrat might choose to vote McGovern, just to remove Nixon. Except that most of the people here don't see it that way, which I find interesting (and yes, the analogy is deeply flawed on many levels). Still.

Posted by: Matt Welch at August 28, 2002 12:41 PM


Regardless of the accuracy of the analogy, what I have found fascinating reading these comments is the extent to which your readers indicate that, knowing everything they do, they would still vote for Nixon. I think I saw maybe two responses out of 38 (minus some number of repeat postings) that indicated they would vote for McGovern, and I think they were from folks who voted for him then.

I don't know what this really says, but it is starkly in contrast w/ many folks I know from that era, who hated, and still hate, Richard Milhous w/ a passion. When DC shut down on Nixon's burial date, I know of several people who SPECIFICALLY went to work that day to show their continued contempt for the man. And by no means were these folks all Democrats, either.

Not sure what this shows, other than that Nixon's legacy, like the man himself, is one of division.....

Posted by: Dean at August 28, 2002 01:14 PM

I was born 15 days before the Watergate break-in, and I can remember being glued to the television set as Sam Erivin and Howard Baker conducted their inquiries . . .

OK. Kidding. Now for my real answer.

I would have voted for Nixon, since he was the more intelligent, experienced, and capable candidate, and since his ideology was more similar to mine than McGovern's was/is.

As soon as I voted, I would have then written a letter to my congressman demanding that impeachment hearings begin immediately. Nixon would have had the opportunity to defend himself, and those who believed him guilty would have had the chance to prove their case. The latter would likely have won, and we would have gotten Gerald Ford as President (I'm assuming that Agnew would have gone down as he did).

And Gerald Ford was/is a damn sight better than George McGovern.

So Matt, your real question appears to be "who was better: Ford or McGovern?"

I'm going with Ford. Any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

Posted by: Pejman Yousefzadeh at August 28, 2002 06:44 PM

I was 13 in 1972, and was in favor of Nixon. I lived in a small Ohio town, (still do), and it would be fair to say that most us supported Nixon. There was never any question about not serving in Vietnam, it was just a given. My father was a police officer, and my uncle was in his third tour. The only reason I didn't go was that I was 16 when Saigon fell. I did serve in the early eighties, in the Air Force.

If I could have voted then? Knowing what we know now, I would have voted for Nixon. McGovern just never passed the "whince" test for me. I could not imagine him as president, as a pastor maybe, but not a war leader. In my conservative family">Fyodor at August 29, 2002 02:02 PM

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er small amounts of money and done some fairly small things in return. (Yes, the prison guards got a huge for them payoff, but they were going to get raises and the bump was, realistically speaking, "minor".)

Yet, he gets a pass on running the state into the ground. Why? Because there doesn't seem to be a direct financial payback involved.

FWIW we probably can blame Nixon for that - we've got a pundit class who thinks that "follow the money" says it all and pretty much ignores anything that can't be explained on that basis.

>> beliefs and positions

Then again, I'm from that part of America where "he meant well" is one of the worst things that you can say about someone.

Frankly, I don't see why any Democrat would have a problem with Davis.

Posted by: Andy Freeman at August 29, 2002 07:05 AM

Think of it. 1972 was the end of the leftward arc of the country. It really was the far left swing of the New Deal. Nixon the most Liberal Republican ever and McGovern going off the left side of the charts. Since then both Republicans and Democrats have nominated progressively more conservative candidates.

I would disagree with those that say you can't compare 1972 with teh Davis/Simon race. No, the issues aren't as critical, but they're still damn important to millions of people. California has the 6th largest economy in the world and Governors have lots of influence over economic policy. Davis has proven himself a F@ck-up, but Simon has the potential for mind-bending disaster.

That's what's similar to 1972. Thus, I would still cast a vote for Nixon.

Posted by: madhatter at August 29, 2002 01:11 PM

Erik Smith: The first time I heard someone say, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" was back in the late 70's. I sure hope you don't think Curt Kobain coined the phrase! As for your impressions of Nixon, I don't believe anyone doubts he was intelligent and could be very nice, but of course so could Hitler. NOT that I'm saying Nixon was as bad as Hitler, just that those are fairly irrelevant points. I've said the same thing to my roommate when he's praised Clinton for being such a great and charasmatic politician.

Posted by: Fyodor at August 29, 2002 02:02 PM
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