You probably missed it, because some of the major papers missed its significance, too: the death of former U.S. Rep. Don Fraser. In fact, you may never have heard of Fraser, who also served a record four terms as mayor of Minneapolis. But he shaped the politics of the last half-century of American life, with particular influence on the 2020 presidential election he will not live to see.
Fraser, who died at 95, was celebrated for hearings exposing efforts by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and South Korean intelligence personnel to manipulate American affairs — a theme that has echoes in our troubled times.
Unmentioned in his obituaries in The New York Times and his hometown Minneapolis Star and Tribune was Fraser’s involvement in the commission bearing his name, along with that of the late Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, which created the modern Democratic presidential nomination system and which was adopted, in time and in large measure, by the Republicans as well. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the McGovern-Fraser Commission gave us the nomination system now playing out.
Before McGovern and Fraser rewrote the rules of politics, presidential nominees were chosen in a fashion unrecognizable today. In the years before the commission’s strictures, there were virtually no rules governing the selection of convention delegates, who are the key figures in selecting the eventual party nominee. State parties and state legislatures — perhaps the least suitable principals for this task in the history of democratic rule — set out the procedures as they liked. There was mischief all around. Bosses ruled.
In fact, the only principle that prevailed was the one set out by William Magear Tweed, the Tammany boss in 19th-century New York politics — another situation where democracy meant never having to say you’re sorry. The Tweed doctrine: “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”
The bosses did get to do the nominating — until McGovern and Fraser snatched away control of the process and left the bosses out in the cold.
Much of what McGovern-Fraser changed is in the small type of party procedure, arcane but vital elements such as forbidding “proxy voting” and eliminating “unit rule.” In all, the commission set out 18 guidelines; no state had been in violation of fewer than six. “By any reasonable standards,” the political scientists Michael Hagen and William Meyer wrote, “this was not mere ‘tinkering’ with the rules.”
One phrase was easily understood: “prohibit ex-officio designation of delegates.” Everyone knew what that meant. It meant a new dawn in American politics.
“I opened up the doors of the Democratic Party,” said McGovern, the 1972 nominee who would lose 49 states to Richard Nixon, “and 20 million people walked out.”
The commission grew out of the chaos and composition of the 1968 Democratic convention, marked by violent riots outside the Chicago convention hall and bitter contention within. The delegates under age 30 to the Democratic conclave four years later, in 1972, accounted for a quarter of the convention; in 1968, those under 30 accounted for fewer than 3 percent. Only 13 percent of the Chicago convention were females. In 1972, two in five were.
“Don Fraser was a supporter of the most important changes having to do with women and minorities in the convention,” said Ken Bode, research director for the commission before becoming a top NBC political correspondent. “He turned out to be a big reformer.”
The result was a new look at the 1972 convention that Hunter Thompson described as being “like a scene from the final hours of the Roman Empire.” Perhaps. But the convention didn’t include Mayor Richard Daley, the villain of the Chicago convention, ejected when the credentials committee ruled the Illinois slate did not reflect the diversity stipulated by the commission. The state’s eventual delegates included the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Fraser would be remembered for Koreagate, as the 1976-78 scandal would be called, for Minnesota’s Fair Housing Act of 1961, for urging relaxed relations with Cuba and for opposing Chile’s military government.
But his greatest legacy grew out of quiet lunches at the Iron Gate, the idiosyncratic Mediterranean restaurant near 17th Street in northwest Washington, where much of the new political world was shaped. There is no plaque there, but the impact is unmistakable.
One of the Fraser tributes described him as a “true champion for good.” That remark came from Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.