POINCIANA – As someone who has been interested in politics since his college days, Keith Laytham has also been a loyal Democrat — although there were times when he didn’t believe the Democratic Party was loyal to his core values.
That’s how he felt during the first presidential campaign that he voted in – or, to be more specific, did not vote in.
“The 1968 presidential election was the first presidential election I was eligible to vote in,” said Laytham, who is now retired and living in Poinciana. “I graduated in the class of ‘69.”
An opponent of the Johnson Administration’s handling of the war in Vietnam, Laytham was disappointed when President Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey – a strong supporter of the administration’s war policies – was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee in 1968 when Johnson opted not to seek re-election.
“Being a college student with the Vietnam War going on, that was a subject near and dear to my heart,” Laytham said. “In the ‘68 election, it ended up being (Richard) Nixon versus Humphrey. Humprehy was LBJ’s vice president, and I wasn’t a big fan of his, and I wasn’t a big fan of Nixon — so I stayed home.”
When Nixon won the election, Laytham said, it would not take him long to realize that his decision to skip that vote had not been a smart one.
“That, in retrospect, was a big, big mistake,” Laytham said. “Nixon got elected and ran on the platform that he had a secret plan to end the war. He didn’t.”
The war would last until 1975, under President Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor.
“By the time 1972 came around, I knew I had made a mistake in ‘68 by not voting, and I was not going to make that mistake again,” Laytham said. “That was the first year I went door to door campaigning.”
And the man he campaigned for was the Democratic Party’s 1972 nominee, George McGovern. And while history would record McGovern as one of the biggest landslide losers in any presidential election – Nixon carried 49 states and 61 percent of the vote, while McGovern would carry just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia – Laytham said the liberal senator from South Dakota nevertheless helped ease the Democratic Party away from a hawkish foreign policy and a base of southern conservatives, to a progressive party that would lead right up to the 2008 victory of a Chicago senator named Barack Obama as president.
“McGovern was very progressive, and in retrospect if you look at history, for many, many years the Democratic Party, particularly in the South, had a lot of conservative-leaning politicians,” Laytham said. “It was really the dawning of the 1960s, when (President John) Kennedy came in and then President Johnson. His Great Society program was quite forward thinking, and so was his push for civil rights legislation. So it was the Johnson administration that started taking the party a little more to the left, and the McGovern movement helped move that along.”
McGovern, an opponent of the Vietnam war who served three terms in the U.S. Senate – and a liberal icon for many years after that – died in Sioux Falls, S.D. on Sunday at the age of 90. His funeral is set for Friday at the Mary Sommervold Hall in the Washington Pavilion of Arts & Science in Sioux Falls.
A Methodist minister, McGovern suffered several political setbacks in his career, including his lopsided loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race, and his loss when he ran for a third term in the Senate in 1980, the year of Republican Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory.
McGovern also made an unsuccessful bid for the 1984 Democratic Party presidential nomination, losing to Walter Mondale.
It’s also worth noting that a young college student who worked on McGovern’s 1972 campaign hailed from Arkansas, and that student, Bill Clinton, would later become that state’s governor, and then president for two terms.
Many of McGovern’s liberal policies, including support for universal health coverage, have been supported by President Obama.
A number of Democrats in Congress today got their start in politics working on the McGovern campaign in 1972, like U.S. Rep. James McGovern (no relation), a Massachusetts Democrat, who noted on his Facebook page recently that “The world has lost a great and good man, and I have lost my inspiration, my mentor, my dearest friend. There is less hunger and poverty because of George McGovern. There is more hope. He believed that one person can change the world, and he proved it every day.”
Laytham said it’s not clear yet if history will write off McGovern as simply a landslide loser in a decades-old presidential race, but he said McGovern was in some ways a transitional figure who made the Democratic Party closer to what it is today, and helped shift it away from a more conservative past.
“History tends to judge the victors,” Laytham said. “He was never a victor, he was never a winner. As a result, I don’t think his position in history per se will be well respected.
“But for those of us who grew up in the era and tend to be more liberal thinking,” he added, “McGovern was an important figure. And it actually was Nixon with his southern strategy that started to pull a lot of southern conservatives from the Democrats over to Republicans.”
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.