George McGovern died this past Sunday. A three-term U.S. senator (and two-term congressman before that), McGovern will forever be known by history as the man who lost the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon by a score of 49 states to one.
Because history is “written by the victors”—as Winston Churchill had it—we seldom spend much time on the losers. In the case of presidential elections, we should.
The American presidency has played host to all manner of pop psychobabble over the eons, by professionals and amateurs alike. While such flights of conjecture can be overdone, the notion of holding the nation’s highest officeholder under a psychological microscope is nonetheless justified by the nature of the office itself, described regularly (and fairly accurately) as the most difficult job on planet Earth.
Almost by definition, then, the presidency attracts individuals with boundless self-confidence and the rawest of nerve—people who are what David Brooks has termed, “emotional freaks.” These folks do nothing less than put their entire beings on display in front of the American public, and on Election Day are judged as to whether they pass muster.
Most of us normal, emotionally balanced citizens can only imagine the dermatological thickness the whole endeavor of running for high office demands, as well as the inherent neediness of its participants—that is, the need to be liked and approved of, not merely by one’s parents, friends and peers, but by darn near everyone.
My question today is simply this: How does one cope with being rejected by a majority of one’s own country?
The late Senator McGovern’s one-state wonder of a campaign defeat in 1972 has been matched only once in the history of contested presidential elections. Walter Mondale, challenging President Ronald Reagan in 1984, also accomplished this dubious feat, losing every state except his own, Minnesota. (McGovern won Massachusetts; his home state of South Dakota swung to his opponent.)
We are offered a brief insight into the aftereffects of such humiliation in an anecdote involving both of these men. As Mondale recalled to Politico just this week, “I remember when, after I lost my race for president, I went to see George. I said, ‘Tell me how long it takes to get over a defeat of this kind.’ He said, ‘I’ll call you when it happens.’”
In fact, McGovern disclosed as early as May 1973 that he and his wife “almost moved to England after the election.” Considering McGovern remained a sitting U.S. senator (re-elected the following year, no less), we can hardly take these as the words of a man quick to make peace with the American electorate.
If losing the presidential race in a veritable rout is a singular trauma—something the rest of us cannot fully fathom—there is a corollary fate that offers its own psychological fascination: Losing the presidential race by a hair.
With the 2012 election but a fortnight from today, we are faced with the possibility—however remote—of a popular/electoral vote split, whereby the candidate preferred by a greater number of citizens is proclaimed the loser. This has happened four times, most recently in 2000, when Al Gore garnered more than 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush. As the remaining three electoral splits occurred in the 19th century, Gore is the only person now alive who knows how this feels.
And how is that? In what mind is one put by the knowledge that a plurality of the American public affirmed that you should be the most powerful man on Earth, and then to be denied the opportunity by a 200-year-old system that half the country doesn’t understand? As Kevin Costner said in Field of Dreams, “It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. They’d consider it a tragedy.”
In the long run, most losing candidates seem to adopt the old equation, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” using self-deprecating witticisms to make light of their electoral failures as best they know how. Gore opened his climate talks by deadpanning, “I am Al Gore, and I used to be the next president of the United States.” McGovern would regale a 1973 audience at a Gridiron event, “For many years, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way—and last year I sure did.”
Nobody likes a sore loser, and self-pity is rarely an attractive quality, no matter how understandable it might be. In two weeks, we will add a new name to the distinguished list of presidential also-rans. In defeat, this man, be it Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, may well reveal the true measure of his character.