The Origin of SuperDelegates
The peace movement in Massachusetts was determined to have a role in the 1972 presidential election by getting behind a single antiwar candidate early, as we had done in the Drinan race. We decided to let the activists choose the candidate and unite behind him.
The preparations were easy, since we already had rules and methods. For this caucus, unlike Drinan’s, we didn't care if the candidates made their pitches in person. We thought it might actually be better if they didn't show up and work their charisma on the participants. We were selecting the candidate behind whom we could unite. It was our party, not theirs. We added two more objectives: we wanted to persuade similar groups around the country to imitate our course of action, and we wanted to be the first such mini-convention, so our result would influence any others. If other groups shared our objective of choosing only one, there would be great pressure on liberals in other states to echo our choice.
We succeeded. We were first on line, in January 1972, and six other states held similar meetings.
Senator George McGovern had been extremely active since the 1968 election, reforming the delegate selection rules of the Democratic Party so the rank-and-file had greater power, leading the debates in the Senate on Vietnam and other war and peace issues, and speaking around the country as he did to the Massachusetts Moratorium Rally. McGovern overcame the suspicion generated at the 1968 Democratic convention when he allowed Robert Kennedy delegates to nominate him while the McCarthy delegates were trying to combine the two groups.
When the Massachusetts Liberal Caucus selected McGovern, he had less than 1% voter support in the public opinion polls. That evening, McGovern called to thank the group through me as one of the prime organizers. He said that Ted Kennedy had phoned him and told him, “You're on your way now. That group is hard-working and effective. They will kill themselves for you.”
Nevertheless, everybody who was anybody in Massachusetts remain committed to the “sure” nominee, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, who’d been on the Democratic ticket with Humphrey in 1968. Virtually every Democratic officeholder and big contributor was working for Big Ed, from Tip O’Neill to Mike Dukakis to Barney Frank. As McGovern's man in Massachusetts, I put together the delegation to represent him on the Massachusetts primary ballot. It was the broadest delegation the party had ever assembled. It was 50% women and included black neighborhood leaders, Hispanics, radicals, liberals, professors like John Kenneth Galbraith, a few officeholders like Drinan, and people who had been handing out leaflets for years without ever receiving any goodies.
I was tickled at my handiwork, especially when McGovern shocked the party and swept the primary. When the time came for the convention, the idea that the political bosses of Massachusetts were home and a hundred “just folks” were in Miami deciding the fate of the party gave me the greatest kick.. And the “just folks” worked very hard. Every decision was carefully studied and discussed and voted on. When the McGovern whips came to instruct the delegation, sometimes we accepted their instructions and sometimes we didn't. For example, there were two delegations from Illinois competing for seating, one led by Mayor Richard Daley, the other by insurgents who claimed Daley had used unfair tactics. The McGovern organization begged us to seat Daley and his people because we needed him to carry Illinois but there was no way we were going to reward “His Honor” after the police riot at the Chicago convention. The delegation voted for the insurgents, who carried the day. But on the key California challenge that could have cost McGovern the nomination we voted solidly as recommended.
One convention day a rumor swept the delegation that Mayor Kevin white of Boston was about to be offered the nomination for Vice President. At first, nobody took it very seriously, but when we did, Galbraith, Drinan and I got word to McGovern that he should reconsider, reminding him of how White had attacked the moratorium arguing that such a hawk should not be on the ticket. The real damage was done by Ted Kennedy, who is reported to have said that, for other reasons, he would not campaign for the ticket if White was on it.
The professional politicians resented the new kind of delegates. Tip O’Neill, known for his tolerance and good humor and a self-styled liberal, did not contain himself: In his book “Man of the House,” published in 1987, he wrote, “Flying back from the 1972 convention I had a long talk with Bob Strauss the treasurer and future chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Senator Henry Jackson of Washington. All of us were bitter at what we had just witnessed. The convention was filled with first-time delegates, mostly women and minorities who spent the bulk of their time fighting over the various planks of the party platform.”
I thought the convention was an exhilarating experience. The delegates talked issues virtually 24 hours a day instead of drinking whiskey and buttering up big contributors. It was an authentic peoples convention that pushed aside the pros for a glorious week.
In six months, McGovern had gone from less than 1% in the polls to being a heavy favorite for Democratic nomination. It was a political revolution propelled by dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War abroad and domestic turmoil at home. McGovern's rise to power in the party came against the wishes of the party professionals and the big money givers. The McGovern campaign workers in the field were left- liberal amateurs, but amateurs who learned quickly. And the money poured in in small contributions from all over the country. There were no financial angel's.
But as soon as nomination was assured, McGovern and his advisers began to eye the center to broaden the base of the movement. One day in June, 1972, a friend of mine overheard McGovern and his campaign manager, Frank Mankiewicz, discuss strategy in Massachusetts. The first thing they had to do they decided, was make sure Jerry Grossman didn't get on the DNC. I knew nothing about the DNC. I had to go to the library to learn about its duties and processes. It was certainly outside the range of my ambition. My role has always been to be an organizer for avant-garde ideas. I am a natural contrarian of the left.
However, the story made me angry, and I decided to run for the DNC just for the hell of it. The McGovern people spread the word that David Harrison, former chair of the Massachusetts Democratic State committee and now a lawyer lobbyist, was McGovern's choice. If they had taken up the matter with me and appealed to me on practical political grounds, I probably would have gone along, but they didn't.
For decades, DNC members in Massachusetts, one man and one woman, had been chosen by the convention delegation, a safe process because the delegation had always been dominated by professional officeholders, with a sprinkling of big contributors. In 1972, however, virtually every delegate had been asked on to the slate by me as chief organizer for McGovern and a few who hadn’t knew I was the soul of the McGovern effort in Massachusetts. I easily polished off Harrison on the first ballot, but I had more of a contest with my liberal friends.
Nixon won 49 states in November; McGovern carried Massachusetts. It wasn't long before Nixon resigned the presidency rather than face impeachment and bumper stickers with the message: “Don't blame me,I'm from Massachusetts” appeared on cars throughout the state.
This anecdote is reprinted from Relentless Liberal by Jerome Grossman Vantage Press New York1996
Robert F. Drinan, S.J.was a Roman Catholic priest, Dean of the Boston College Law School, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970 defeating an entrenched incumbent in a campaign organized by grassroots peace activists opposed to the Vietnam War. This election began the political process that transformed Massachusetts into the ultra liberal state. Father Drinan served in Congress for 10 years.
Thomas P. O'Neill (Tip) was a professional politician whose unbroken string of election victories culminated in his terms as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives He was the most powerful politician in Massachusetts with great national influence.