George McGovern, the Last Honest Democrat
The Nation October 22, 2012
What most people never grasped about George McGovern's
run for President 40 years ago is that it was the last
genuinely open and honest presidential campaign. His
landslide defeat in 1972 taught a generation of
aspiring young Democrats not to try that again and they
didn't. McGovern's quality of earnest candor was deeper
than style or politics. This is who he was as a person,
not a saint or righteous innocent, but constitutionally
inclined to say what he thought, believing most people
would listen with an open mind or at least they would
learn from a truthful discussion of the nation's condition.
Of course, he was mistaken. Yet I saw him up close when
again and again he spoke freely about his views in ways
that injured him, set him up for ridicule or contempt.
Even the reporters covering his doomed campaign would
roll their eyes in disbelief. Me too. Reporters were
the cynics and Senator McGovern was the starry-eyed
idealist. That was more or less the way we told the
story. Looking back after all these years, I feel we
missed the essence of George McGovern's goodness. He
was not naive or ignorant of the hostile context. Given
the desperate state of the union, putting hard truths
on the table was perhaps the only strategy that might
prevail. Anyway, it would be good for the country.
I experienced this as a young reporter for The
Washington Post covering the McGovern campaign
non-stop. The editors knew I was something of a
bleeding heart. But they figured McGovern was a sure
loser (they were right) and so it would do no harm if I
wrote a lot of sensitive mush (they were right about
that too). So I spent the campaign season as one of the
"boys on the bus"--two weeks on the road with the
candidate, then one week or so back home in DC. We had
a lot of fun. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was the tour director.
I was given only one instruction by my editor--do not
fall for the reporter's standard illusion that what was
happening day by day on the campaign trail would
somehow decide the election results. It didn't then and
it doesn't now. Knowing this liberated me to skip the
thumb-sucking stories on how the horse race was going.
Other reporters, watching the big crowds of ecstatic
McGovern supporters turn out, would succumb and report
that the candidate was finally enjoying a "turn
around." He might not be a loser after all! My
accomplishment was I never fell for that.
But I did sort of fall in love. The candidate was
intriguing on a personal level--sweet and brainy and
deeply thoughtful, a true and generous teacher. He had
a sophisticated world view born of the World War II
experience and an open-armed confidence about America
and its possibilities that I think of as Midwestern
(since I'm Midwestern myself). McGovern's conviction
was liberal optimism and creative thinking could change
things for the better. World peace was the core of his
optimism. How far-fetched it seems now.
The senator's character was reflected in his campaign
apparatus and the people around him. A little wobbly on
organizational skills but a great spirit of mutual good
feeling. A favorite pleasure of mine when I was back in
DC was dropping by the McGovern national headquarters
housed in an old row house on K Street. I literally
would go door to door and chat up whoever I came across
among the people managing his campaign--writing
speeches, raising money, plotting schedules. There were
no security guards at the building nor even a formal
receptionist (though they did have a daycare center for
I remember dropping in on the campaign treasurer who
proudly took me up stairs to show me the money room.
There were long folding tables covered with stacks of
envielopes and high-spirited women ripping them open
and counting thousands of dollar bills. I felt welcome
to sit down and start opening envelopes myself. On
another occasion, I was ushered into an office where
staffers were listening to a possible campaign song.
"George McGovern Will Lead Our Crusade." It went on for
many verses while the composer did a little tap dance.
Campaign staffers listened earnestly but decided the
song might to be too radical for the candidate. How
could you not like these people?
Across town was the future of politics--the Nixon
headquarters. There were armed guards, locked doors
with buzzers, special IDs for important people and, who
knows, probably hidden cameras. Everyone called it
CREEP--The Committee to Re-elect the President. McGovern
called it the most corrupt administration in history
and was criticized for exaggeration. CREEP was secretly
shaking down corporations for hundreds of millions and
threatening retaliation to any company that refused.
The extortion was so raw some CEOs complained
publically. Forty years later, the corporate money is
all perfectly legal now and extortion has morphed into
the wholesale bribery that engulfs both parties (though
some donors still prefer anonymity).
The senator's death brings back a small personal
regret. Reporters loved to interview McGovern, knowing
if they pushed the right button they might get an
alarmingly candid response. A month or so before the
1972 election, the Nixon White House cooked up what
became known as the "October Surprise"--the sudden
announcement of peace in Vietnam. About that time, a
small group of reporters were invited to interview
McGovern and I asked the candidate a loaded question:
what did he think would happen after "peace" was declared?
McGovern did not blink. In his patient manner, he
taught a little history of Indochina and concluded that
this "peace" was not the end of the story. In a couple
of years, once American troops were withdrawn, North
Vietnam's army would sweep south, swiftly conquer the
old US ally and unify the two Vietnams. The US would
make a lot of noise but decline to reenter the war.
That of course is precisely what happened three years
later. McGovern's prediction was ignored amid the
celebration of Nixon's false piece.. I still feel a
small regret that I had set up the senator, not because
it made any difference, but because I was taking
advantage of his best quality.
The hardest question to ask about George McGovern's
legacy is whether he made any difference at all. In
some aspects, we can say yes. But for the central
thrust of what he believed and tirelessly advocated, we
have to say, honestly, no. Like McGovern, I imagined
with millions of others that Americans would learn from
the tragedy of Vietnam and never let it happen again.
That was so wrong. We are replaying the tragedy
instead, repeating the same brutal mistakes and, worse
yet, pretending that the bloodshed is noble business.
Since 1972, I count four American wars fought on
foreign soil and many more smaller skirmishes, all in
the name of national security. Each time, the American
dead are honored in sentimental public celebrations.
The speeches express gratitude to their families and
admiration for acts of bravery. No one of any
prominence in politics dares to ask whether they died
in vain or if the killing of many thousands in target
countries has any moral justification. Think of the
questions George McGovern asked. To what end? How are
we any safer as a nation? Is it possible we are
inventing even more risks?
Instead, we hear more talk of war, more planning for
war. We set trip wires for potential wars in scores of
other countries. If they do something bad, we will go
after them. The president can now make war in remote
places by personally punching a few buttons, selecting
individual victims from lists of potential enemies. A
man of peace who frequently makes war.
George McGovern would tell the truth nobody wants to
mention. Instead of finding peace, our society is
drenched in the culture of war, taught to children in
video games and glamorized in fiction and film. On some
twisted level, we have been taught to love war and so
we shall have more of it. Do not mourn for the senator.
Mourn for ourselves.