August 1968: The Roots of the Liberal Coup


“What Goldwater was to Reagan, McGovern was to Obama,” New York Times writer Sam Tanenhaus wrote about the 2008 election, in reference to the two fathers of America’s modern political movements. The first story, about the conservative ascendancy in the Republican Party, has been told. The second, covering the liberal ascendancy in the Democratic Party, has not. (That is, until my book came out last fall.)

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In earlier columns, I wrote about the late Fred Dutton’s liberal vision for the Democratic Party. Dutton sought to build a Democratic coalition made up of young people, African-Americans, and college-educated suburbanites — three key constituencies of Obama’s campaign.
So how did Dutton do it? How did he destroy the old Roosevelt coalition (Catholics, labor, African-Americans, intellectuals, and white Southerners) and create the McGovern coalition?
In my book, I show how antiwar liberals overthrew what Lyndon Johnson called “the Catholic bosses” in a coup d’état. Here’s how it all began.
Walking back after midnight from the convention to his hotel room, Eli Segal felt exhilarated and “excited as hell” — so much so that he had to restrain himself. His joy that night in the streets of Chicago was unusual for someone who worked for the McCarthy presidential campaign; it was also unusual for Segal, a mild-mannered sort who would later head the Americorps program in the Clinton administration.
Earlier on that hot and steamy August evening, during the second session of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, McCarthy had effectively conceded defeat in his bid for the party’s nomination. “It marked the climax, and the death, of that insurrection against the war and the leadership of the Democratic Party which had begun so many months before, and which had been sustained with such passion and ferocity,” three British reporters wrote in An American Melodrama.
Unbeknownst to the journalists, Segal had been taking part in another insurrection against the war and the leadership of the Democratic Party. Working on behalf of the Minority Report of the Rules Committee, the short, prematurely balding young man scurried around on the floor of the International Amphitheatre, lobbying delegates to support the minority report. After it squeaked by at 11:38 p.m., Segal felt transformed, though he dared not share his feelings with his colleagues. “I went from being anti-Vietnam,” he said, “to being a reform Democrat, that night.”
Segal had a big stake in the outcome of the vote: It was his memo that served as the intellectual template for the entire reform movement in the Democratic Party.
Segal’s main job in the McCarthy campaign had been directing the operation in states without primaries. When the state party leaders gave McCarthy few or no delegates, his young aides came away feeling, with some justification, that they had been disrespected. “I had found in one state after another that the delegates in these had been picked two or three years earlier,” Segal recalled. “McCarthy couldn’t even get those delegates if he tried.”
Following the advice of Yale Law School student Geoff Cowan, Segal spent the summer examining the party’s nominating process. Had he studied the recent history of the boss system, his memo might have shown that the 1968 Democratic contest was actually an anomaly. Not only had President Johnson suddenly announced that he was not seeking re-election on March 31, giving vice-president Humphrey only weeks to enter state primaries, but Robert Kennedy, who won every primary he entered but one, was assassinated on June 5. As historian Richard C. Wade, a McGovern adviser, acknowledged in a 1970 article, “In 1968, the system was actually working until the assassination in California.”
Segal lacked perspective; he was 25 years old and had never worked on a presidential campaign before. As a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, he analyzed the boss system in the only way he knew: by examining the methods by which state Democratic parties had chosen their delegates in 1968. Segal’s research found, not surprisingly, that the most undemocratic procedures were those in boss-dominated states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana. Echoing McCarthy, Segal argued that “a small group of men” rather than voters chose the nominee. As he observed in the seven-page memo, “Unfair Methods of Delegate Selection for the 1968 Democratic National Convention,”
Although the selection process varies from state to state, a common pattern has emerged here — a small group of men has the legal authority to name the delegation without any regard to the wishes of the Democratic voter . . . .
Segal’s memo was influential. It served as the blueprint for the Harold Hughes Commission, the ad hoc panel whose recommendations informed the minority report of the Rules Committee. Naturally, “The Democratic Choice” also attacked the power of a small group of men: “As delegates assemble for the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the demand for more direct democracy and the call for an end to ‘boss control’ of the nominating machinery can be heard, with an intensity not matched since the Progressive Era.”
In this context, Segal’s elation in Chicago was understandable. He had wanted to get rid of the small group of cigar-chomping politicians making their deals in back rooms. In their place, he hoped to give power to Democratic voters in primaries and caucuses. And now the Democratic Party — the world’s oldest political party — was on record seeking a similar goal. State Democratic parties would be required to choose delegates by a process in which “all Democratic voters have had full and timely opportunity to participate.”
For a while, Segal hoped party leaders would fulfill their promises. On January 14, 1969, DNC Chairman Fred Harris created a successor to the David Lawrence Commission (1965-68) called the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (1969-72). But in Segal’s eyes, things soon headed downhill.
On February 7, Harris named Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota as chairman of the effort — what would become known as the McGovern Commission. To Segal, McGovern was no reformer. Although at Chicago he had made a few noises in support of reform, his proposal was a far cry from that of McCarthy, who had called for the “full-scale structural and institutional reform of the Democratic Party.” As Segal admitted, “It was months before I thought McGovern himself was okay.”
On February 8, Harris named the other 27 members of the commission. Most were not reformers, either, and Segal distrusted all of them: “We felt at the time that most of these people were part of the ‘good old boy network,’” he told political scientist Byron Shafer.
In mid-February, Segal was hired as chief counsel to the commission. Even so, Segal’s worries were not allayed. Segal felt surrounded by opponents, faint hearts, and strangers. He couldn’t let this commission end up like the Kerner Commission, whose provocative recommendations in 1968 about solving the underlying causes of urban riots had been ignored by federal officials. He needed to do something, come up with some plan or idea to keep the reformers in power. If he didn’t, all of his hard work — the memo, the Harold Hughes Commission, the Rules minority report — would have been in vain.
So Segal devised a plan. He would set up a small executive committee to control the agenda of the McGovern Commission. As a committee within the commission, the executive committee would be able to recommend changes to the party’s nominating system and evaluate the findings of staff about the state’s procedures. The executive committee, in other words, would determine the ideology of the presidential wing of the Democratic Party.
Segal had no interest in making the membership of the executive committee representative of the commission or the Democratic Party. He did not even want commissioners who belonged to the party’s citizen-intellectual wing, the tradition in which his own father had raised him. He wanted commissioners who belonged to the citizen-intellectual wing and were sympathetic to the New Politics.
There was nothing illegal about Segal’s plan; it did not violate the letter of the commission’s mandate. But it did violate its spirit. The McGovern Commission was supposed to be a disinterested reform body; it would transfer power from the bosses to the people. But in Segal’s eyes, the commission would turn into an instrument of the New Left, transferring power from the bosses to left-liberal activists.
Taking a page from Mayor Daley’s playbook, Segal stacked the executive committee with like-minded Democrats. “The executive committee was important,” Segal told Schaefer. “If you took that commission and looked at the executive committee, then you could really see the slant toward reform. With two or three exceptions, you had the hard-core there. Seven of the ten were hard-line reformers, and two of the others never came.”
The differences between the leaders of the Democratic Party’s presidential wing and those of the McGovern Commission were stark. Consider the party leadership in 1968:
  • John M. Bailey, chairman of the Democratic National Committee
  • Rep. Hale Boggs, chairman of the Platform Committee at Chicago
  • Gov. Richard Hughes of New Jersey, chairman of the Credentials Committee
  • Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, the kingmaker at the convention
Each was a Roman Catholic, a professional politician based either in the big cities or state house, and had a cross-racial, Catholic, and working-class constituency.
Compare that roster to the leadership in 1969:
  • George McGovern, Commission chairman
  • Eli Segal, general counsel to the Commission
  • Anne Wexler, chief of commission consultants
  • Ken Bode, director of Commission research
  • Fred Dutton, the force on the commission
Each member here was either a mainline Protestant or non-orthodox Jew, an activist or political aide, was based in academia, and had a largely suburban, upper-class, white constituency.
The leadership of the presidential wing of the Democratic Party was about to change.
Segal’s plan was approved democratically. Yet the executive committee resembled the group that “Unfair Methods of Delegate Selection for the 1968 Democratic National Convention” had railed against in several notable ways. Of the panel’s ten members, nine were men. And when the executive committee held a second meeting, McGovern announced that in order to evaluate its preliminary recommendations: “We need a small group.” Eli Segal was poised to substitute one small group of men for yet another.
His plan was significant. While the big-city and state bosses were back home with their hands off the party machinery, a small group of activists anointed a new set of conductors to drive the Democratic train down a very different track.


  • Mark Stricherz

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party.

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