Two weeks ago, in a column on Jewish voting patterns, the Monitor pointed to the 1984 election as evidence “that a Republican presidential candidate, whether incumbent or challenger and no matter how strong his record on Israel, will always lose among Jewish voters when the alternative is a liberal Democrat without any pronounced or well-known hostility to Israel.”
Several readers argued that the 1972 election illustrates even more starkly the Jewish proclivity for voting Democrat – and they’re probably right. At least the Democratic candidate in 1984 was a known and comfortable commodity to pro-Israel Jewish voters, which was decidedly not the case in 1972.
The Democratic nominee in ’72 was the extremely liberal South Dakota senator George McGovern, a man who had not exactly carved a name for himself as a defender of Israel and who exemplified the type of guilt-driven liberalism that captured the Democratic party that year (and would lead it to disaster in every presidential election save one over the next 16 years).
McGovern challenged Richard Nixon, who’d never been a popular figure in the Jewish community and who garnered just 17 percent of the Jewish vote in 1968 when he defeated then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey. But Nixon during his first four years in the White House compiled a generally solid record on Israel. U.S. policymakers began to take seriously Israel’s value as an American asset in the region, and military aid to Israel rose to unprecedented levels.
Israeli leaders left no doubt as to their preference. Prime Minister Golda Meir considered Nixon the most supportive U.S. president since Israel’s creation in 1948, and Israel’s ambassador to Washington, the former IDF chief of staff and future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, openly hoped for a Nixon victory.
But though it was clear throughout the campaign that McGovern would not attain the stratospheric Jewish support Democrats had come to consider their birthright, it was equally clear that the bulk of the Jewish community would remain loyal to the Democratic standard bearer.
As in prior elections, Jewish organizational leaders such as the Washington fixture Hyman Bookbinder made no secret of their Democratic sympathies. The McGovern campaign’s Jewish liaison, Richard Cohen, returned after the election to his job as public relations director at the American Jewish Congress; McGovern campaign director Frank Mankiewicz was a former employee of the Anti-Defamation League.
Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter Falk, Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Leonard Nimoy and scores of other Jewish celebrities enthusiastically gave their time and money to the Democratic candidate.
As Stephen Isaacs described it in his 1974 book Jews and American Politics, “despite problems with affirmative action plans-cum-quotas, the ‘urban fever zone,’ scatter site housing, community control of schools, an inept Democratic presidential campaign – despite all these things and more – the Jewish bloc vote did hold up” for McGovern, who won the votes of 65 percent of American Jews – this while Nixon was crushing McGovern among the general electorate in a landslide of historic proportions.
While Nixon doubled his share of the Jewish vote from the paltry 17 percent he received four years earlier, the startling fact remains that McGovern actually did better among Jews than had Adlai Stevenson – an old favorite of Jewish voters and an icon of mid-twentieth century liberalism – in 1952 and 1956.
Given Nixon’s record on Israel and the plaudits of Israeli leaders, his moderate domestic agenda, and an unimpressive Democratic nominee with no strong ties to the Jewish community, the 1972 election was as clear a signal as any that the majority of Jewish voters were (are) driven by a combination of old habits and a religious-like devotion to liberalism rather than a primary concern for Israel or narrowly defined Jewish interests.
A year later, as the Yom Kippur War raged, Nixon went against the State and Defense Department bureaucracies and directed the massive military airlift that saved Israel from impending catastrophe. Had two-thirds of American Jewish voters gotten their way, the man sitting in the Oval Office during Israel’s time of unprecedented peril would have been President George McGovern.