Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The precedent of '72

Monday afternoon, after hearing Dick Morris invoke Willie Horton in reference to the Jeremiah Wright controversy, I knew I had to write this article:
The scandal that refuses to go away, the blunder that cripples a candidacy, the error that defies every effort at correction -- this is what the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has become for Sen. Barack Obama's campaign. . . .
Obama's predicament now resembles nothing so much as that faced by George McGovern in July 1972, after the Democratic presidential nominee belatedly discovered that his vice-presidential choice, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, had previously been hospitalized for mental illness. . . .

McGovern's mishandling of the Eagleton affair had been in my mind for several days, primarily because I'd recently finished re-reading Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72.

Thompson believed that the way the Eagleton affair was bungled was what doomed McGovern, completely changing public perception of him. The alternative hypothesis was that Nixon's re-election was inevitable. Yet Nixon had his own brewing scandal that year -- the break-in at the Watergate happened about a month before Eagleton was announced as McGovern's running mate. Democrats, however, were unable to get any traction on that scandal, in large part because they were so demoralized by the Eagleton affair.

McGovern, as I explain in the Spectator article, had delayed picking his No. 2 until the week of the convention. That in turn led to a last-minute scramble, and Eagleton essentially lied his way onto the ticket by failing to divulge his previous hospitalizations. Once that was discovered by the press, Eagleton should have resigned -- but he refused to do so, and thus began a 10-day melodrama that made McGovern look ineffective and indecisive.

Obama's failure to put away the Wright controversy in March, so that Wright is still making headlines six weeks later, is very much reminiscent of how the Eagleton affair plagued McGovern's campaign.

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