As we gear up to elect a U.S. president next year, I’m thinking about the first presidential contest in which I took part.
I had a small part. I voted.
It was 1972, George McGovern vs. Richard Nixon. The fate — and as it turned out, the weight — of the nation hung in the balance.
Nixon won in an epic landslide. He was the incumbent, and viewed as a pragmatic centrist, if oily. McGovern was viewed as a left-wing pacifist weenie — seldom a winning image in American national politics.
Never mind that McGovern was the one with the World War II combat record and decorations. Image is everything.
On election night, I was on the road and had my car radio tuned to WJR Detroit,”the Great Voice of the Great Lakes.” About 6:30 p.m., there was a news flash: “The polls have just closed in Granite Notch, New Hampshire, and CBS Radio News is projecting that Richard Milhous Nixon has been re-elected President of the United States.”
They don’t call ’em like that anymore. Not that early, anyway.
I voted for Mr. Nixon. Am I ashamed? Yes, but not because I voted for a shady slime-ball. I knew that going in, and it was politics, after all.
But if McGovern had won, American history would have changed for the better in obvious ways. Without a sitting president in the cross-hairs, the Watergate scandal would have gotten much less attention and “Deep Throat” would be just a forgotten porn movie. There would have been no presidential resignation.
Thus, Gerald Ford would never have been president. Without Ford in the White House, the career of comedian Chevy Chase would have suffered and the long-running Saturday Night Live might have died in its infancy.
A less obvious benefit, but the one I care the most about, would’ve been the easing of the obesity epidemic. Maybe we could have avoided it altogether.
Am I saying that Nixon in the White House contributed to the fattening of America?
No, I’m saying that McGovern in the Senate did.
From 1968 to 1977, McGovern was the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. It was commonly referred to as the McGovern committee. In early 1977, the McGovern committee issued a report entitled Dietary Goals for the United States, which advocated that Americans eat more fruits, grains and vegetables and less meat, eggs and dairy products. In other words, more carbs and less fat. The American waist-line has expanded steadily ever since.
You might think that having McGovern in the White House would’ve made things worse, giving him a bully pulpit for his fat-phobic message. I don’t think so. Presidents don’t have time for that sort of nonsense. They don’t need to give dietary advice to leave their mark on history.
Electing McGovern president would’ve kept him, and us, out of trouble.
It was only after losing the 1972 election that McGovern took his select committee in the direction of telling Americans how to eat. Prior to that, it had focused on the issues of hunger and malnutrition.
If we had put George McGovern in the White House in 1972, we’d be thinner for it today.
My advice for 2012: consider all the angles.