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“Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion”: The Unlikely Source of a Legendary Smear

Presidential politics can get very ugly, but in the current contest I don't think we've heard any slogans as vicious as the one leveled in 1972 against George McGovern, who died this past weekend at age 90. The South Dakota senator was, his opponents sneered, the candidate of "Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion."

The smear is being mentioned in some of McGovern's obituaries, but most of these leave out the phrase's weird provenance, which remained a secret until 2007. In that year, Robert Novak revealed its source (in his memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington) to be none other than Sen. Tom Eagleton.

Eagleton, a Missouri Democrat,  would of course go on to be chosen as McGovern's running-mate--and then dumped 18 days later, after it was revealed that Eagleton had previously received electric-shock therapy for "nervous exhaustion." McGovern's former campaign manager, Frank Mankiewicz, notes in his TNR obituary that if it weren't for the Eagleton blunder, McGovern might well have "remained the standard-bearer for liberalism [in a good way, Mankiewicz means] after what would have been a close defeat by Nixon." Mankiewicz even thinks McGovern, and not Jimmy Carter, would have gone on to win the presidency in 1976.

Had Mankiewicz and McGovern known, when they vetted Eagleton, that Eagleton had originated "Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion," there's no chance they would have chosen him. McGovern's onetime speechwriter, Bob Shrum, said as much in 2007 in a joint appearance with Novak on Meet The Press. "Boy, do I wish he would have let you publish his name," Shrum exclaimed.

Then he never would have been picked as vice president. Because the two things, the two things that happened to George McGovern—two of the things that happened to him—were the label you put on him, number one, and number two, the Eagleton disaster. We had a messy convention, but he could have, I think in the end, carried eight or 10 states, remained politically viable. And Eagleton was one of the great train wrecks of all time.

Why did Eagleton say it? According to Novak (who in 1972 was half of the syndicated-column-writing team Evans and Novak), after McGovern won the Massachusetts primary he, Novak, put out calls to Democratic politicians seeking quotes for a column he wanted to write about a disconnect he perceived between McGovern and blue-collar voters. One of these politicians was Eagleton, who supported McGovern's primary opponent Ed Muskie and opposed legalization of abortion, which would occur the following year when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. Eagleton obliged Novak with a very juicy quote, supplied on a strict not-for-attribution basis:

One liberal senator feels McGovern’s surging popularity depends on public ignorance of his acknowledged public positions. "The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot," he told us. Once "middle America—Catholic middle America, in particular"—once they find out, "he’s dead."

This attack line created a predictable sensation, and was picked up, first by McGovern primary opponent Hubert Humphrey, and later by various Nixon supporters. Somewhere along the way "legalization of pot" got dropped and the more alliterative "acid" was substituted. McGovern became the candidate of Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.

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Evans and Novak, whose column was drifting rightward in general, took a lot of heat for this column in particular. It was (rightly) deemed an attempt to sabotage McGovern's chances of winning the nomination. In his 1973 book The Boys On The Bus Timothy Crouse quoted a McGovern spokesman suggesting that the blind quote was pure invention. That infuriated Novak, who all his life kept careful score of every slight. Novak and his partner, Rowland Evans, took Eagleton to lunch at Sans Souci, the Washington power restaurant of that era, to discuss the matter. Eagleton did not try to deny the quote. Indeed, he said that subsequent events (i.e., Nixon's landslide victory) ratified his earlier assessment. (That took a certain cheek, since the landslide was largely the product of Eagleton's failure to come clean on his mental-health record.) Even so, Eagleton refused to allow the columnists to reveal that he was the source of the triple-A attack line, citing the harm such a revelation might do to his Senate re-election. Thirty years later, when Novak began writing his memoirs, he wrote Eagleton, then retired, to ask if he could now cite him as the source of that famous quote. Again, Eagleton said no. But Eagleton died just as Novak was finishing up the book, freeing him to identify Eagleton as the source. "He never repudiated what he said about McGovern," Novak wrote, "while concealing the fact that he said it."

Quite apart from its viciousness, was it factually wrong to tag McGovern as the candidate of Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion? In a 2007 book review of Bruce Miroff's book The Liberal Moment: The McGovern Insurgency And The Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party, I argued that it was.

1.) Acid. McGovern flat-out did not favor legalizing marijuana, much less acid. Eagleton was quite nastily reminding Novak by indirection that McGovern's teenage daughter Terry (an addict who would later freeze to death while passed out drunk) had, four years earlier, gotten busted for marijuana possession.

2.) Amnesty. McGovern did indeed favor amnesty for Vietnam draft resisters, but so, prior to the 1972 campaign, had Nixon. When Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter later granted, in stages, complete amnesty to all Vietnam draft evaders, the republic somehow managed to survive.

3.) Abortion. McGovern's position stood to the right of Roe. McGovern said abortion was a matter best left to the states, which essentially is the pro-life position today. In 1973 Roe would say that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed every woman the right to choose whether to have an abortion.

In my 2007 review, I make a fuller case that McGovern's legacy has been unfairly tarnished in other ways as well. The real blunder that year was committed by the 47 million voters who re-elected Nixon, only to see him resign office in disgrace two years later. This was nicely captured—forgive the vulgarity—by some graffiti I remember seeing in a Los Angeles men's room stall sometime in 1973 or 1974: "If you voted for Nixon you can't shit here because your asshole's in Washington." Amen.

Correction. An earlier version of this column referred to McGovern's home state, erroneously, as North Dakota.