The 1972 campaign took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, ongoing cultural upheavals and the still-fresh memories of Kent State and the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. I was only five at the time, but to my eye the poster captures the chaotic vibe of the era. Executed as a collage, it features a central photographic portrait of McGovern, surmounted by a shambolic map of the United States, the states literally coming unscrewed and jumbled in unfamiliar positions. A faint pencil portrait of President Nixon, crossed out with a large “X”, looms over the country. I’m not sure it was the intention of the McGovern campaign, but the overall impression I get is of the United States as a do-it-yourself home art project.
George McGovern (1922-2012) was native of Mitchell, South Dakota and left college to become a decorated bomber pilot who survived 35 missions during the Second World War. After the war he finished his studies and went on to teach history and political science at Dakota Wesleyan University, and in the early years of the Cold War migrated from lukewarm Republicanism to the Democratic Party. In 1956 he won election as the first Democratic congressman from South Dakota in two decades, and went on to serve two terms before losing in the 1960 election. After overseeing President Kennedy’s Food for Peace program for two years, he ran for and won election as South Dakota’s junior Senator. There he was a reliable member of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, focusing primarily on agricultural issues and trying to exert some restraint on defense spending and on hard-line anti-Communist policies such as the embargo on Cuba. He gained national prominence as a vocal critic of the war in Vietnam and in 1968 made a doomed play for the Democratic presidential nomination after the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
McGovern tried again in 1972, and against long odds won the nomination over Edmund Muskie, George Wallace, and Humber Humphrey. He ran on a platform of withdrawal from Vietnam, reduction of defense spending, and redirecting the savings to an expansion of social welfare programs. His campaign was alas doomed by a divided Democratic party (including an “Anybody but McGovern” coalition of Southern Democrats and organized labor), a platform too liberal for the taste of mainstream America, Nixon’s recent blockbuster trip to China, and a ruthless, at times illegal, campaign by Nixon. In the general election McGovern won only 37 percent of the popular vote and 17 electoral votes from Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
In all, a rare and striking piece of campaign memorabilia featuring an interesting persuasive map, and an important reminder that raucous, even toxic polarization is nothing new in American politics.
Not in OCLC.