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  McGovern-Humphrey Primary Debate #1
TitleMcGovern-Humphrey Primary Debate #1
Start Date/TimeMay 28, 1972 05:00pm
End Date/TimeMay 28, 1972 06:00pm
Last ModifiedChronicler - September 30, 2008 05:53pm
DescriptionThe second of four debates during the Democratic primary season of 1972 was also the first in a series of three debates in the week preceding the California primary. For the first time, three debates were held within days of each other, rather than spacing them a week apart.

By 5/1/1972, Democratic Party leaders believed that it was time to take action to derail the presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern. They believed that McGovern was headed for a major defeat and feared an associated loss of seats in Congress. Many party leaders supported Sen. Humphrey, who had taken Gene McCarthy's seat in Minnesota in 1971. Humphrey was far behind in the polls in California, which had a "winner take all" primary scheduled for 6/6/1972, so he drafted a plan to try to close the gap. On 5/18/1972, Humphrey challenged McGovern to a series of debates preceding the California primary. Gary Hart accepted on McGovern's behalf, and negotiations began [New York Times 5/19/1972].

Organizing the debates was more difficult than originally believed. Sam Yorty was also contesting California, and on 5/19 he demanded to be included in the debates, which he stated would otherwise be a "massive vote-buying effort" [NYT 5/20/1972].

The stakes in the California debates were raised on 5/24/1972, when McGovern swept Oregon and Rhode Island. The New York Times reported [5/25/1972] that the delegate totals stood McGovern 505, Wallace 323, Humphrey 294, and Muskie 159.

Quick Facts
When: 3:00-4:00 p.m. (PST), 5/28/1972, though it did not air in California until 6:00 p.m. PST.
Where: Los Angeles CA. Produced by CBS.
Moderator: George Herman. Panel: David Schumacher (CBS News), David Broder (Washington Post). The debate was a special broadcast of CBS's news show "Face the Nation."
Number of viewers/listeners: undetermined, but the New York Times estimated that only 20% of voters in California watched [NYT 5/30/1972]
Topics: Vietnam, foreign and domestic policy

Transcript: not available.

Format: Questions and answers; closing summary

Setting: Undetermined

McGovern and Humphrey held a cold debate. The preceding day had been HHH's 61st birthday; he left a birthday party early because he was suffering from diarrhea and running a fever. Not fully recovered the following day, he spent three hours in debate preparation with his staff. McGovern arrived at the studio first and did not greet HHH when he arrived a minute later. The two men were highly critical of each other but managed to address the issues without raising their voices. McGovern smiled on occasion, but the New York Times described HHH as being "sober, even stern, throughout."

Humphrey went on offense near the beginning of the debate. He said that McGovern had a "very catchy phrase" of "McGovern right from the start," but that he felt that McGovern had been "wrong from the start" on Vietnam, aid to Israel, labor law, and unemployment compensation.

Half of the program was devoted to the Vietnam conflict and defense issues. Humphrey believed that the two men held similar views on the war and had voted the same way in the Senate. They tangled over the significance of voting for bundled budget packages that included some funding for the conflict as well as other programs, such as one which included aid for Israel that McGovern voted against. McGovern pointed out that he had first questioned US involvement in 1963 and that HHH had stated in 1967, "Vietnam is our greatest adventure and a wonderful one it is."

Humphrey stated that McGovern's defense proposals would diminish the influence of the USA around the world. He said that McGovern's proposal to cut $32 billion from the Dept. of Defense would "cut into the muscle" of national security. HHH was challenged to explain why in 1971 he had advocated reducing the Defense Dept. budget to $50 billion, which was a similar amount to that proposed by McGovern. He said that his numbers were based on a withdrawal from Vietnam and did not propose to damage the national security. He stated that if the DOD budget was reduced as McGovern suggested, the Soviet Union would feel no reason to continue arms limitation negotiations and that the US would be in danger of becoming "a second-rate power." McGovern believed that the Soviets would want to continue to negotiate. "We have all the military power we need to destroy every city in the Soviet Union 20 times over." He also stated "I have known something about war at first-hand," a reference to his service as a bomber pilot in World War II. HHH did not serve in that war.

On domestic issues, Humphrey challenged McGovern's welfare proposal. He said it would cost $72 billion. McGovern disputed those numbers. He had not decided how much it would run but knew that the funds would not come from the Treasury. He would be willing to send a check for $1,000 to each person in the nation as a means of beginning his plans. Humphrey believed that sending out these checks would necessitate a tax increase of $567 for each person. HHH had his own plan to spend an additional $11.5 billion on welfare, including increasing Social Security benefits and guaranteeing a minimum family income of $3,000 for a family of four.

McGovern said in his closing that the USA did not need a re-run of 1968. His campaign was riding " a tide that above all else would restore a measure of openness and truthfulness" to Washington DC. Humphrey said that his chief goal was "to lift the spirit of this country." He had a solid record of "performance" in his career as mayor, U.S. Senator, and VP - but he believed that McGovern only offered promises. [New York Times, 5/29/1972]

It was readily apparent that HHH had a narrow edge in the debate. McGovern immediately said that he was "a little startled" by HHH's quick attacks. [New York Times, 5/29/1972]

1st Democratic primary debate of 1972: [Link]

3d Democratic primary debate of 1972: [Link]

4th Democratic primary debate of 1972: [Link]

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