David Shribman 2018

David Shribman

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 to its conclusion — but which he witnessed in its messy, muddled and mindless start.

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. But that is not what catapulted Fraser into a transformative figure in American politics.

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 in Iowa, New Hampshire and across the country.

Before McGovern and Fraser — an ally of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and initially regarded as a reluctant warrior in the party reform movement — 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. Cronyism triumphed. Discrimination reigned. 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 for trampling democratic norms. 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 and, in many celebrated cases, actually out of the convention hall itself.

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 of those protocols. "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.

That new dawn wasn't completely rosy-fingered, though it had a distinctly pink tint.

"I opened up the doors of the Democratic Party," said McGovern, the eventual 1972 nominee who would lose 49 states to Richard Nixon, "and 20 million people walked out."

The commission grew out of the chaos, conduct and composition of the raucous 1968 Democratic convention, marked by violent riots outside the Chicago convention hall and bitter contention within. The delegates younger than 30 to the Democratic conclave four years later, in 1972, accounted for a quarter of the convention; in 1968, those younger than 30 accounted for fewer than 3%. Only 13% 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."

One of the major influences on Fraser, and on the committee as a whole, was Arvonne Fraser, his wife, who died last year at 92. She was known for her ardent feminism, a force for innovation and inspiration. Her informal but formidable role in the commission was evocative of the remarks of Abigail Adams to her husband, John, delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776:

"In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."

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 1976-1978 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.

In 1968, there were only 15 presidential primaries. In recent years there have been about 40. Between 1952 and 1968, the earliest date for a presidential candidate announcement came in mid-October of the year before the election (Robert Taft, October 1951). This time, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland already has been running for two years. By the time October comes around — the 2020 equivalent of the Taft announcement — some of the two dozen Democratic candidates already will have dropped out of a race that increasingly is a marathon, not a sprint.

One of the Fraser tributes described him as a "true champion for good." That remark came from Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.