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Avoiding the Spirit of ’72

With So Many Lawmakers Seeking the White House, Getting Along Is Not Always Easy, Say Veterans

Will the Democratic Senator not running for president in 2004 please turn out the lights?

That’s an exaggeration, of course. As of this writing, only three Senate Democrats — John Edwards (N.C.), John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) — are certain presidential contenders. But others could follow: Joseph Biden (Del.), Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.). Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) also walked to the precipice before deciding against a bid.

Why — when recent history suggests that a stint as governor is a far better pathway to the White House than doing time on Capitol Hill — are so many Senators running for president this time? And what does it all mean?

One person who has been there, former Sen. George McGovern (S.D.), the Democratic nominee in the 1972 presidential election, believes Senators are correctly trying to reclaim their rightful place at the top of the country’s political heap in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, environment.

“I’ve never accepted the notion that being a governor is an advantage when you’re a presidential contender,” McGovern says. “I still believe the big international and national issues are best handled in the U.S. Senate.” [IMGCAP(1)]

But that in itself has implications. Put parochially, will all the would-be commanders in chief be able to get along when they return from the campaign trail to their day jobs in the Senate?

“You have to,” says someone who knows the drill, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.).

Lugar ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996, when the Republican field included Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Kan.), Sen. Phil Gramm (Texas) and, briefly, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.).

“Your life goes on,” Lugar says, referring to life in the Senate after life on the campaign trail. “You’re busy voting and doing business back here [in Washington, D.C.] with your colleagues.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who campaigned for president in 1992 in a field that included then-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), recalls that he and Kerrey “went at it pretty good in the [presidential] debates,” but would then joke about it when they returned to Washington. That’s sound advice for this class of Senators running for president, Harkin says.

“Most of the battle will take place out of here,” he says. “It will take place in Iowa or New Hampshire. You keep it collegial by remembering that nothing is personal. Nothing is personal in this business.”

Is it really as simple as that? And is everybody really so reasonable?

Let’s take a little walk down Memory Lane and contemplate the challenges facing these Democratic Senators.

The last person to be elected president directly from the Senate was John Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1960. Since then, only three Senators have been the presidential nominees of their parties: Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in 1964, McGovern in 1972 and Dole — who actually resigned from the Senate before he officially won the nomination but was still a Senator when he clinched it — in 1996.

Not that Senators haven’t been in the thick of several nominating fights in the modern, post-Ike Age presidential era. In 1960, for example, JFK fought for the Democratic nomination against three of his colleagues — Hubert Humphrey (Minn.), Lyndon Johnson (Texas) and Stuart Symington (Mo.), among other contenders.

The 1976 Democratic campaign featured five Senators. Birch Bayh (Ind.), Frank Church (Idaho) and Henry “Scoop” Jackson (Wash.) ran full-throttle campaigns (though Church got into the race late). And Lloyd Bentsen (Texas) and Robert Byrd (W. Va.) ran favorite-son candidacies that never quite got off the ground.

That same year, former Sen. Fred Harris (Okla.) also sought the nomination. And then-Sen. Walter Mondale (Minn.) explored the possibility of running, but pulled back when he determined that he didn’t want to spend his life sleeping in Holiday Inns.

They all lost to a little-known one-term ex-Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter.

The 1984 Democratic campaign featured four Senators — Alan Cranston (Calif.), John Glenn (Ohio), Gary Hart (Colo.) and Fritz Hollings (S.C.) — plus an ex-Senator, McGovern, in addition to Mondale, who by then was an ex-Senator and an ex-vice president. Mondale became the nominee, only to be wiped out by Ronald Reagan in the general election.

But the presidential campaign with the greatest number of Senators in recent memory was in 1972. Then, McGovern captured the nomination over Humphrey, Jackson and Sen. Ed Muskie (Maine), among other candidates. Bayh and Sen. Harold Hughes (Iowa) also took steps to run that year but pulled back.

Leon Billings, a lobbyist who was then a top aide to Muskie, remembers that the Senators running in 1972 did not seem to miss a beat on Capitol Hill despite racing around the country. For example, Muskie’s Clean Water Act of 1972 was passed while he was in the heat of the campaign.

“He was intensely involved in the campaign, yet he managed to be a Senator — maybe that’s why he lost,” Billings muses. “Presidential politics — in the case of Humphrey, Jackson, McGovern and Muskie — there was a significant degree of building your presidential campaign around your Senatorial record. That is less the case these days, and that is a profound difference.”

McGovern says that he and his Democratic opponents generally got along well. Whatever awkwardness there was among them was largely attributable to their “sharp differences” over the war in Vietnam, he recalls.

“There’s a slight tension, as you can imagine, when you’re competing for the highest office in the land,” McGovern says. “But I think you can say we were all friends when it was all over.”

Billings says the differences among the Democratic Senators that year were more “stylistic” than personal, though he noted that there were significant “philosophical differences” between Muskie, Humphrey and McGovern and the more hawkish Jackson.

Still, some bitterness inevitably crept in. Muskie was the 1972 Democratic frontrunner from the 1970 midterm elections until the primaries began. But when he faltered and McGovern began gaining, Humphrey — the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968 who had tapped Muskie to be his running mate that year — jumped in at the urging of the AFL-CIO, which opposed McGovern. That split the anti-McGovern and labor vote in key states like Pennsylvania.

“Muskie was clearly hurt and frustrated by the fact that Hubert got into the race — and got into it late,” Billings says.

McGovern too retains some wounds. Back then, the nomination fights carried on into the party conventions and weren’t settled after a few early primaries the way they so often are now. So while McGovern was the overwhelming leader in the pre-convention delegate count, he did not quite have enough delegates to claim the nomination and prevent a fractious convention. Several of his opponents — including Humphrey, Jackson and Muskie, all of whom are now dead — schemed to deny McGovern the nomination, and he figures their maneuvering hurt him in his ill-fated general election campaign against Richard Nixon.

“To me, that was one of the most disappointing aspects of the campaign,” McGovern says. “Each one ganged up to try to deny me the nomination. It was almost an act of spite that I’ve never really been able to figure out.”

Because presidential nomination contests are settled so early these days, that’s a fate the Democratic nominee will likely escape in 2004. But the Democrats are also hoping they escape another aspect of McGovern’s 1972 fate — losing 49 states.

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