Tuesday, October 23, 2012

George McGovern, the Last Honest Democrat

George McGovern, the Last Honest Democrat

William Greider

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

their kids).

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.

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