Remembrances of Politics Past: Georgia, 1972
The 1972 campaign for the presidency between George McGovern and Richard M. Nixon truly was a turning point in American politics. As I recall, McGovern won South Dakota, and Nixon won the other 49 states.
Except for Watergate (a sad phrase), it could have been earthshaking. It might have led to what Kevin Phillips suggested and Karl Rove more recently predicted: something that looked a lot like a permanent Republican majority.
In the Georgia of 1972, the Republican majority hadn't yet emerged. In fact, Republicans had been mostly invisible since the Civil War.
Democrats controlled nearly ever office at the state and federal levels, from the Senate (Herman Talmadge and Richard Russell) to the governorship (snarly-faced Lester Maddox followed by smiley-faced Jimmy Carter) to congressional seats, where only two of the then-10 representatives were Republican: Fletcher Thompson and Ben Blackburn.
They were the only congressional Republicans since the Civil War, and Thompson of Atlanta was stepping down to battle against Sam Nunn of middle-Georgia Perry. I was extremely active in the Thompson campaign, although I realized Nunn as a "conservative" (sorta) Democrat was formidable.
On the presidential level, the main stream media (MSM) were emphasizing McGovern's appeal to young people. That was an exaggeration, as the final results showed, because the South Dakotan's appeal was restricted mainly to his homestate voters and the Democratic inner-city core.
In states like Georgia, McGovern came across as pompous, feckless, and disloyal. Otherwise, I guess he was fine.
At the University of Georgia, the new 18-year-old vote was very much in force, and many students wanted to support Richard Nixon. McGovern's campus support mainly centered in student government, which represented a left-wing, anti-war agenda more than it did Georgia students.
I helped organize University of Georgia Students for Nixon (and Thompson). It was one of the most effective student groups ever launched on that or any campus.
Somehow, I thought I'd play a big hands-on role in "running" the group. I didn't, because the students seized control of their organization.
With help from Thompson's paid staffers -- one in particular, a Georgia graduate student named Richard -- they built a group consisting of more than 250 students willing to canvass the campus.
Led by future Marine Dale Perry of rural Danielsville, the UGA group identified and listed nearly ever student who favored Nixon and/or Thompson. They helped many students (in the hundreds) register in Athens or get absentee ballots to vote in their home counties.
After they completely canvassed the University of Georgia area, they expanded into the rest of Athens and Clarke County. Late in the campaign, they expanded into other counties.
Traditionally, the student government had held on-campus "straw votes." That didn't happen in 1972, because the marginally pro-McGovern student group blocked it.
They knew Nixon would win such a straw vote by a huge margin. They didn't want to "embarrass" McGovern, who was doing such a good job embarrassing himself.
Nixon won Georgia, traditionally a "Democratic" state. Now, a generation later, the governor of Georgia (Sonny Perdue) is a Republican, as are both senators (Saxy Chambliss and Jonny Isaacson) and seven-out-of-11 congressional representatives.
Fletcher Thompson lost in a relatively close race to Sam Nunn. But Thompson established the foundation for the later defeat of Herman Talmadge and the eventual control by Republicans of both Senate seats, as well as both houses of the state legislature.
The 1972 election turned things around politically in Georgia -- and in the Deep South generally. Watergate reduced the magnitude of the turnaround somewhat, but it didn't block it.
How did University of Georgia students get so involved and have such a positive effect? One of the slogans of the time went this way: Question: "How do you get people to support Nixon?" Answer: "You ASK them to."
Note that the Thompson campaign had a full-time staffer whose only job was to go to campuses throughout the state and attempt to replicate what was going on in Athens. He had success just about everywhere he went.
Of course, the myth -- then as now -- is that students are (1) lazy; (2) liberals. Some students, like some adults, are one or both, but many do want to participate in conservative politics, and they can be extremely effective.
In the Irey campaign of 2006, I worked for a day with two high school students, Amanda, age 14, and her brother, age 16. In one long afternoon, they made 400 phone calls in support of Diana.
Neither of them was old enough to vote, but I told them they were having the effect of people who had many votes. I added that many individuals feel helpless in the face of current events, but they were making a change -- even if it was a small one -- in the world they inhabit.
I told myself, with a touch -- but just a touch -- of hyperbole: "Give me 50 people like these two, and maybe we win this (supposedly unwinnable) election.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.