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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 January 2020
The Democratic Party faced a crisis of political legitimacy in the late 1960s as distrust and protest permeated its electoral base. In response, the Democratic National Committee established the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, tasked with restructuring the party’s presidential nomination process. Contrary to the conventional historical narrative of the McGovern-Fraser Commission that has focused on a supposed displacement of the party’s old guard by radical insurgents, this article instead argues that the main impetus for reform came from national party leaders seeking to build up the legitimacy and authority of the National Committee. Commission Chair George McGovern and the DNC used a particular reform rhetoric that charged state parties with the corruption of the political process, necessitating rescue by an empowered national party. This focus on the nationalizing impulses behind McGovern-Fraser serves to shift our attention away from ideological struggles and toward institutional motives.
The author thanks Michael Kazin, Kevin Kruse, Beth Lew-Williams, and Julian Zelizer for their invaluable feedback. This article was made possible by a generous History of American Democracy Graduate Fellowship from the Tobin Project.
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12. Four major systems of delegate selection were in operation: direct appointment (governor/state committee decides without the electorate), election by convention (district or state convention), direct election (primary selects delegates), preferential poll (primary that is purely advisory on voter preferences of delegates), or a mix of the four.
13. Democratic National Committee (hereafter cited as DNC), The Democratic Choice: A Report of the Commission on the Democratic Selection of Presidential Nominees (Washington, D.C., 1969), August 1968, p. 15, Box 78, Folder: 1968 Democratic Convention Rules & Order of Business Committee, George S. McGovern Papers, Princeton University Library Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (hereafter cited as GMP).
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19. DNC Press Release, “New Committees to Be Appointed by the Chairman,” 17 January 1969, Box 157, Folder: Democratic National Committee–Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection 1972 (hereafter cited as DNC/CPSDS), GMP.
20. DNC list of members for Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, 9 February 1969, Box 157, Folder: Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (hereafter cited as CPSDS), GMP.
21. Miroff, The Liberals’ Moment, 20.
22. Correspondence from George McGovern to Adam Yarmolinsky, 20 February 1969, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.
23. Correspondence from Ina Litke to George McGovern, 19 June 1968, Box 73, Folder: Democratic National Committee—’68 Campaign—National, 1968, GMP.
24. This was not the first time this kind of legislation had been brought up in Congress. A similar bill, S.J. Res. 84, had been proposed by Ervin and Senators Sparkmann and Dodd in the previous Congress and died in committee. The Lodge-Gossett Resolution of 1950 met a similar fate almost twenty years before.
25. Correspondence from Sam J. Ervin Jr. to George McGovern, 19 November 1968, Box 80, Folder: General, GMP.
26. Memo from George McGovern to members of CPSDS, 3 April 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP.
27. Shafer, Quiet Revolution, 106.
28. Cowie, Stayin’ Alive, 88. Here, Cowie contends that “labor and many of the party regulars, to their detriment, did not respond kindly to the reform commission,” a general perception of labor expressed by Miroff as well.
29. Extracts from Commission hearings, Los Angeles, 21 June 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP, 76.
30. Extracts from Commission hearings, Phoenix, 16 May 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP, 244.
31. Memo from Commission staff to members, “Task Force Hearing Themes,” 27 May 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP, 2.
32. Kenneth T. Jackson, “Richard Clement Wade,” The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives vol. 8, 509.
33. Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, 3rd ed., s.v. “Alexander Mordecai Bickel,” 26.
34. Memo to George McGovern with Wade-Bickel Papers attached, 20 October 1969, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP, 5–6.
36. DNC, Demo Memo, vol. 1, no. 17, 18 November, 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP.
37. Report by the McGovern Commission, “Official Guidelines for Delegate Selection,” 20 November 1969, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.
38. DNC, Demo Memo, vol. 1, no. 17, 18 November 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP.
39. The O’Hara Rules Commission’s task of addressing interstate apportionment involved calculating how many delegates each state would be allotted for the National Convention. Factors in this calculation included state population, number of Democrats per state, consistent Democratic wins, and balancing the power of large states. This reform was different from the McGovern Commission’s mandate to address intrastate apportionment, that is, how individual states selected the specific delegates assigned to them.
40. DNC, “Issues & Alternatives Outlined,” Demo Memo, vol. 1, no. 18, 4 December 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP.
41. Transcript of NBC’s Meet the Press broadcast, 19 October 1969, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP, 8.
42. Ayer Directory of Newspapers, Magazines, and Trade Publications 1970 (Philadelphia: Ayer Press, 1970), 753.
43. George McGovern, “The Lessons of 1968,” Harper’s Magazine, January 1970, 43.
44. McGovern, “The Lessons of 1968,” 46.
46. DNC, Mandate for Reform: A Report of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection to the Democratic National Committee, April 1970, Box 80, Folder: George McGovern 1968, GMP, 8.
47. McGovern Commission Executive Committee Meeting Agenda, 7 July 1970, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.
48. Memo from Bob Nelson to Executive Committee, “Response of State Parties to Date,” 6 July 1970, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.
49. Memo from Bob Nelson to Commission members, “Progress Report,” 3 November 1970, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.
50. McGovern for President, McGovern on the Issues, September 1971, Box 80, Folder: George McGovern 1968, GMP, 43–44.
51. McGovern for President Press Release, 16 February 1972, Box 103, Folder: Reform Commission 1972, GMP.
52. Donald Janson, “Only Muskie and McGovern Enter Full Slates of Delegates in Pennsylvania,” New York Times, 16 February 1972.
53. Though the network had previously planned to feature only Democratic frontrunners George McGovern and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, an FCC complaint and legal challenge from Democratic presidential contender Shirley Chisholm forced the inclusion of Chisholm as well as Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and Alabama Governor George Wallace (who sent a proxy in his stead). Thomas Asher of the Media Service Project in Washington submitted the airtime challenge to the FCC and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals on Chisholm’s behalf. Not only did this impact ABC, but CBS and NBC also had to extend equal time to Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm, The Good Fight (New York, 1973), 80.
54. Transcript of ABC’s Issues and Answers broadcast, 4 June 1972, Box 156, Folder: Democratic Party Reform 1972, GMP, 3–4.
55. ABC, Issues and Answers, 6.
57. Transcription by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “1972 Democratic Party Platform,” 10 July 1972, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29605.
58. Kamarck, Elaine C., Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System (Washington, D.C., 2009), 86–89Google Scholar.
59. McGovern, George, “How I Won It,” Newsday (Garden City, N.Y.), 16 July 1972Google Scholar. Newsday circulation figure obtained from Ayer Directory, 1972. This article was simultaneously reprinted as an exclusive for Newsday under various titles in other national papers, such as the Boston Globe as well as abroad in the International Herald Tribune. See George McGovern, “McGovern Tells How He Did It,” Boston Globe, 16 July 1972; and McGovern, George, “McGovern’s Victory for Experimental Science,” International Herald Tribune (Paris), 17 July 1972Google Scholar.
60. McGovern, “How I Won It.”
61. “Remarks by National Campaign Chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien Before the Democratic National Committee,” 8 August 1972, Box 156, Folder: Democratic National Convention General 1972, GMP, 1.
62. Memo from Eli Segal to George McGovern, “1972 Democratic National Convention Statistics,” 27 November 1972, Box 156, Folder: Democratic National Convention General 1972, GMP, 1–2.
63. Crotty, Decision for the Democrats, 144. The increased representation of women among delegates to the National Convention in 1972 is widely regarded as one of the major achievements of the party reform process. For more, see Wilma McGrath and John Soule, “Rocking the Cradle or Rocking the Boat: Women at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Social Science Quarterly 55, no. 1 (June 1974): 141–50.
64. The question of how state parties reacted and why they acquiesced to the DNC’s reforms is a question that is explored in greater detail elsewhere. For more on this issue and the noncompliance argument for state party reform adoption, see Walz, Jeffrey S. and Comer, John, “State Responses to National Democratic Party Reform,” Political Research Quarterly 52, no. 1 (March 1999): 189–208Google Scholar. In contrast, Bill Cavala suggests that the political expediency of uniting the liberal wing of the party behind the old-guard favorite Edmund Muskie was motivation enough for state leaders to acquiesce in the national delegate selection standards: Cavala, William, “Changing the Rules Changes the Game: Party Reform and the 1972 California Delegation to the Democratic National Convention,” American Political Science Review 68, no. 1 (March 1974): 31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
65. Chisholm, The Good Fight, 10.
66. Jacobs, Meg, “The 1980 Election: Victory Without Success,” in America at the Ballot Box: Elections and American Political History, ed. Davies, Gareth and Zelizer, Julian E. (Philadelphia, 2015), 198–202Google Scholar.
67. DNC Press Release, “Westwood Announces Commission on Delegate Selection,” 7 September 1972, Box 156, Folder: Democratic National Convention General 1972, GMP. See also Klinkner, Philip A., The Losing Parties: Out-Party National Committees, 1956–1993 (New Haven, 1994), 114–20Google Scholar.
68. Garry J. Moes, “Party Chief: More Reform,” Washington Post, 17 July 1972.
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