It was November, 1972, and George McGovern had just been whipped in a landslide by Richard Nixon.
But the candidate's steady liberal principles, and the timing of his run, made McGovern the first presidential nominee of a major political party to attract a broad and public following from the rebels who had come of age the decade before.
"He was the first candidate I voted for," says the activist and historian Todd Gitlin, who was in his late 20s at the time. "I think the support he got was a sign that the era of radical obstinacy was over."
The optimism was understandable. Hubert Humphrey had lost by fewer than 600,000 votes to Nixon in 1968, and the 1972 election was the first presidential campaign since the minimum voting age had been lowered from 21 to 18, potentially adding millions of (presumably) liberal young people to the rolls. And McGovern, in opposing a war expanded and advocated by Democratic presidents, had shaken the party's post-World War II tradition of aggressive anti-Communism.
"Humphrey was anathema to us in ‘68, and then we got McGovern and America suddenly seemed like a place where real choices were presented," says historian Jon Wiener, who has written often about the politics and culture of the Cold War era. "I remember election night, 1972, as like the worst night in American politics in my life. Here was this stark choice between war and peace, truth and lies, and the American people rushed to embrace war and lies."
For many, McGovern's campaign promised the fulfillment of what Robert Kennedy might have achieved if not for his assassination in June 1968. Kennedy was just 42 at the time, energetic and wavy-haired. "Bobby Is Groovy," supporters' posters had read. His candidacy inspired one of the first presidential fundraising concerts to feature rock stars, when the Byrds played at a May 1968 concert that also included Sonny and Cher and gospel great Mahalia Jackson. (Humphrey's campaign attempted, in vain, to get a song out of Jefferson Airplane.)
When McGovern, aided by party rules he helped revise, became the surprise contender in 1972, the left felt revived. Hoffman and Rubin had mellowed just enough since 1968 to accept the nominee of a mainstream party. Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Julie Christie were among the young Hollywood stars who backed McGovern. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was an enthusiastic supporter, and McGovern was the rare candidate regarded sympathetically by the magazine's hell-raising reporter and Robert Kennedy admirer Hunter S. Thompson, who called McGovern "the most honest big-time politician in America."
The rock community gave McGovern the kind of hip cachet that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would later receive. Simon & Garfunkel, who had broken up in 1970, reunited to perform on McGovern's behalf. Country Joe McDonald, known for his profane anti-war "Fish Cheer," also sang for him. The popular band Chicago was so dedicated that cultural historian Peter Doggett, in his book "There's a Riot Going On," referred to their 1972 tour as "virtually a McGovern roadshow, with every concert offering voter registration booths and Democratic propaganda."
Neil Young wrote "War Song," a jagged rocker with a hopeful chorus, "There's a man says/he can put an end to war." Ushers at a Madison Square Garden show, which starred Simon & Garfunkel and Dionne Warwick, included Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman and Gene Hackman. Tina Turner, "Mama" Cass Elliot and Judy Collins were among the singers at another Garden concert, "Star Spangled Women."
Lennon, who had emigrated from England to New York the year before, had been radicalized through his marriage to the artist Yoko Ono and through his friendships with Abbie Hoffman and Rubin. He was writing militant chants such as "Power to the People" and was anxious to help bring down the hated Nixon. By late 1971, he and Rubin were planning an all-star tour and voter registration drive. The idolized ex-Beatle probably could have had his pick of fellow rockers to join him.
Republican officials were worried. "If Lennon's visa were terminated, it would be a strategic counter-measure," read a memo prepared for Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell. The administration began a long effort to deport the British native, based on a 1968 drug bust in London. Tied up in immigration proceedings, afraid that he was being followed and possibly in physical danger, Lennon called off the tour. But he remained a McGovern believer, and, Rubin would later explain, was sure that the Democrat would win as the singer and others gathered on election night.
"This is it?!" Lennon raged as the results came in. "This is IT?!"