Of all the men that have run for president in the twentieth century, only George McGovern truly understood what a monument America could be to the human race. - Hunter S. ThompsonI read the news today. Oh, boy. Five years ago, I wrote the following:
I believe that the failed 1972 campaign of South Dakota Senator George McGovern was as pivotal for the liberal, Democratic wing of the Democratic Party as the equally disastrous campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. More than the campaign, however, I believe the committee McGovern chaired, with its rules changes for the primary process and delegate selection and voting process were even more important than his campaign. I think it, like its mirror image eight years before in the Republican Party, laid the foundation for the direction the Democratic Party is moving, for the issues and policies they are highlighting, and, I think, for its success despite overwhelming odds in the previous election.A decorated veteran of the Second World War - McGovern was a bomber pilot - McGovern would be reviled as someone who hate the military. An elected public servant, serving in the US House of Representatives and US Senate from 1956-1980, McGovern was called anti-American.
While there have been many autopsies, both popular and academic, that have been definitive in their conclusions that it was McGovern that sidelined the Democratic Party to decades in the political wilderness, I think McGovern's legacy has won out. While some prominent former Democrats, most notably former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, made clear it was McGovern's work overhauling the Party's nomination process that destroyed the New Deal Coalition, I think that work has paid dividends down the years. While there are many who still consider McGovern's candidacy the worst thing to happen to the Democratic Party, I think it transformed the base of the Democratic Party.
In a column written on October 16, Charlie Pierce included long sections from McGovern's acceptance speech before the 1972 Democratic National Convention. The closing section offers a vision of America that should resonate with those who have listened to Barack Obama over the past five years. In order to make that clear, first, again from Pierce, are some words about the stakes in this election.
But who's out there now, spouting off about all he'll make the government do for us if we just put him and his zombie-eyed, granny-starving running buddy in charge of it? Who's talking about Five Point Plans and North American Energy Independence and all the things he'll do for us? And who's out there talking about the hard work we've already done, and the hard work we will have to do, together, over the next four years? Who's talking about freedom and independence the way they really were defined in Philadelphia, first in 1776 and then a decade or so later? Who's talking about pledging to ourselves, in mutual support, our lives and fortunes and sacred honor? Who is expressing in real, if occasionally stumbling terms, a real faith in our ability to build a political commonwealth?Now, George McGovern:
From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America. From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America. From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick — come home, America. Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward. Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this "is your land, this land is my land — from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters — this land was made for you and me." So let us close on this note: May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.After the 1972 election, McGovern was treated with disdain by the party that had made him its candidate for President. As the ensuing year and a half revealed the depth of corruption in the Nixon White House, there was no one who came forward to apologize. As the Republican Party emulated Nixon in so many ways, from the Southern Strategy (Ronald Reagan began his Presidential campaign in Stone Mountain, GA, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan) to a pattern of corruption that repeatedly dogs Republican Administrations (at least they tend to keep it in their pants), no one who ignored McGovern in the wake of his loss has made a public statement admitting McGovern was right.
Thing is, though, McGovern was right. He was right that the Republican Party in 1972 was a seething cauldron of corruption. He was right that, at that time, we needed to come home, to work together to make our land, our nation, a great place again. All we get from the opposition are empty promises and even more empty public treasuries. We get division and rancor. I'm not saying McGovern was the best candidate ever to lose the Presidency. I am saying, however, that he was right and Nixon and his evil, twisted step-children that continue to wreak havoc and may yet have a chance to do so again was so very, very wrong. That so many serious people in positions of influence cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this reality is very sad.
Rest in peace, Senator McGovern. You have left a legacy that is worth remembering. If there were enough people with both the will and courage to do so, the tattered banner of your vision of America being its best self could still be lifted up.