On pages 739-740 of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein tells the following story about George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Presidential candidate:
“‘In a recent month,’ McGovern intoned in a radio ad, ‘a quarter of the wounded civilians in South Vietnam were children under twelve. As we vote November seventh, let us think of Tanya and all the other defenseless children of the world.’ The candidate was howling, howling into the wilderness. If he was going to lose, he would lose his way.”
Tanya was a twelve-year-old girl whom Richard Nixon mentioned in his 1972 acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention. She lost her family in World War II, and Nixon exhorted, “Let us think of Tanya and the other Tanyas and their brothers and sisters everywhere—-in Russia, in China, in America, as we proudly meet our responsibilities for leadership in the world in a way worthy of a great people.” McGovern was turning Nixon’s reference to Tanya on its head: Sure, lets think of Tanya and people like her, but let us remember that defenseless people like her are being wounded due to the war in Vietnam.
I like what Perlstein says on pages 739-740 because it is about transforming a loss into an opportunity. If McGovern was going down, he was going to go down making an important statement. Granted, people were seeing him as a cliche of himself. He himself was much more moderate than many believed him to be: he wasn’t in favor of drug legalization, abortion-on-demand, or many of the radical or controversial groups at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, but many people thought that he was, one reason being that a number of his prominent supporters had those stances. When McGovern tried to explain that he wasn’t for putting half of the country on welfare whether the recipients wanted to work or not, but instead wanted for everyone to have a job, many did not believe him. They thought he was flip-flopping. McGovern was on the defensive and was trying to explain himself, and, as someone Perlstein mentions in the book asserted, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. (Well, not always: there was Nixon’s Checkers Speech, and Arnold Vinick’s exhaustive response to reporters’ questions at the nuclear power plant on The West Wing!)
Maybe McGovern had been caricatured and his loss was certain. But he was still going to make a clear statement. He was still going to call out evil when he saw it. He would appeal to people’s moral sensitivity.