In ’84, no pandering from ex-senator and presidential candidate McGovern
FILE - In this April 18, 2009, file photo former Sen. George McGovern delivers remarks at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Ann McGovern, the former senator's daughter, said Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, it's a blessing that she and other family members are able to surround her father as he declines in hospice care in South Dakota. (AP Photo/Bill Haber, File) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
George McGovern talked a lot, which is not necessarily a liability in a politician as smart and principled as he was. But my favorite McGovern sighting in New Hampshire was practically a Marcel Marceau gig.
He played it on the last Saturday of the 1984 presidential primary campaign when he sat in a straight-back chair on the stage at the Palace Theater in Manchester. He said a few words, but mainly he was a prop for Arlo Guthrie, the singer and storyteller, then a lefty Democrat, lately a Ron Paul libertarian.
McGovern, who died Sunday at the age of 90, turned out to be a bigger factor at the Guthrie concert than he was in the 1984 primary. That was the year Gary Hart won an upset victory over Walter Mondale as yet another sign of the decline of the New Deal. McGovern took 5 percent of the vote.
Ronald Reagan had made “liberal” a dirty word by then, but McGovern never tried to shake the label. He was unrepentant, believing to the end in the federal government’s duty – and ability – to improve life for citizens. He was also a has-been by 1984, having been so thoroughly beaten as the Democrats’ 1972 presidential nominee that he had no hope of winning.
He was smart enough to know this, so why was he running again? A combination of ego and conviction. The ego is standard equipment for a politician at McGovern’s level, and losing the 1972 race had left a permanent bruise on his. Returning to the campaign trail probably made it feel better.
The conviction was genuine, and good-hearted, and it made McGovern a pleasure to interview and listen to on the stump. There was no hedging, no pandering, no Romnesia. He had nothing to lose, he knew what he thought, and he let it rip. Take it or leave it.
Fast forward a quarter century. One of McGovern’s last appearances in New Hampshire occurred on July 20, 2009, the day after his 87th birthday. He stopped that evening at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord to promote his short biography of Abraham Lincoln. As he reminded his audience twice that night, he had a doctorate in history from Northwestern and had taught history before entering politics. In other words, maybe he had been hired to write the Lincoln book because he was a political celebrity, but he also had the credentials.
Almost none of the questions from the friendly crowd at Gibson’s were about Lincoln. Many listeners had been McGovernites in 1972, and they wanted to talk about that history. McGovern obliged them.
Someone asked what he would do differently if he could relive that campaign. “Let everyone know I was a war hero,” he replied. Though a dove on the Vietnam War, he had been a bomber pilot during World War II, safely crash-landing his B-24 on an island in the Adriatic Sea after it was hit during his 30th mission. Like many veterans of that war, he said little of his service, and the Nixon campaign tarred him as a coward.
McGovern added that he wasn’t really a hero. The heroes of his war, he said, were all people who had not survived to speak for themselves. But he believed speaking about his fighting days would have helped his campaign. “If people had known that, maybe they would have listened to my concerns about Vietnam,” he said. “I needed to say to people, ‘I’m a tough guy, too. I’m mean and nasty. I can kill people, too. But this war in Vietnam is a mistake.’ ”
Someone asked how the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968 had affected McGovern’s presidential aspirations. President Lyndon B. Johnson had dropped out of contention for another term by then, and Kennedy had run as a peace candidate with a liberal social agenda similar to McGovern’s. Just weeks remained before the nominating convention.
Though reluctant to run against his friend Hubert Humphrey, the vice president, McGovern was drawn into the race because of Humphrey’s hawkish position on Vietnam. He had a single debate with Humphrey and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, another peace candidate, “and if I do say it, I trounced them,” McGovern said. That short campaign “catapulted me onto the national stage,” leading to the nomination four years later.
President Obama had just taken office, and McGovern disagreed with his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Had he been elected in 2008, he said, he would have had all U.S. troops out of both Iraq and Afghanistan by Thanksgiving 2009 – three years ago now. He saw these wars as of a piece with Korea and Vietnam – unnecessary, wrong, deadly and expensive.
McGovern also said that even though Hillary Clinton had lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she had “demolished the myth” that a woman cannot run a successful presidential campaign. “I’m 87 and don’t have long to live,” he said, “but I think I’ll live to see a woman president. Of course, I think I’ll live to be 100.”
Like many others in the audience that night, I bought McGovern’s book about Lincoln. I was intrigued by the idea of a man spurned in his own presidential bid analyzing the career of the country’s greatest president. I detected no envy in McGovern’s approach, only admiration. Writing of Lincoln’s ability to set his sights higher than mere personal success, McGovern wrote:
“His American Dream was that all men and women should have equal opportunity to improve their lot. . . . Government’s role, he said, was ‘to elevate the conditions of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.’ When these paths were cleared, he believed, any man could, through diligence and dedication, become ‘self-made.’ ”
McGovern may have done a bit of projecting when he adapted Lincoln’s view to include women, but the words are striking. They describe a political philosophy long out of favor with the party of Lincoln but very much in tune with the life and career of George McGovern.
Political bumbling doomed McGovern’s one chance for the White House, but defeat did not dim his many admirable qualities. Not least of these was his belief in the duty inherent in freedom of speech. A survivor of one of the deadliest combat jobs in World War II, he opposed subsequent wars no matter which party held the White House. After calling for an Afghanistan pullout, he said to the crowd at Gibson’s: “As Americans, if we believe that, we have to say it.”