George McGovern 1922-2012
Early this Autumn morning, George McGovern passed away.
"The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of country deep enough to call her to a higher plain."
"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, if he wins, knows the thrills of high achievement, and, if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
George McGovern failed daring greatly. I was almost tempted to call this piece, "History's Glorious Loser" but thought better of it at the last moment. For the last three days I knew the moment would soon arrive when I would have to write this piece - since Wednesday when it was announced that he had passed gently into an irreversible coma. For my purposes his death could not have come at a more apropos moment. I have spent the last two weeks thinking a lot about George McGovern.
I had just finished rereading, back-to-back, two books that dealt with McGovern's campaign against Richard Nixon forty years ago: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson, and The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse. Also recently I watched again the documentary I purchased a few years ago called, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern. This is as good a time as any to unload one's thoughts about George.
Publicly Bobby Kennedy referred to George McGovern as "the most decent man in the senate". Privately he called him "the only decent man in the senate". In my opinion he was the only man who ever sought the White House who was a true "Christian", that is to say he took the words of the Sermon on the Mount quite literally and tried to live by them - both publicly and privately. He was the peace candidate in 1972. His entire candidacy was more-than-likely a lesson in futility. Americans didn't want a pacifist living in the White House in 1972. Forty years later they still don't want one. We do love our wars, don't we. We're a warlike people. That's primarily why we are today a nation in ruins. Deal with it.
By Election Day 1972 it was obvious that the Nixon Gang were traitors to democracy. The Watergate scandal was in the process of unraveling; the trail of illegality from every direction led right to the Oval Office, and yet incredibly - mind bendingly - the American people chose to "stay the course" (whatever the hell that means) with the most corrupt administration in the history of human folly. The ultimate irony is that, given the hideous ethical standards of Reagan and King George Bush the Second, Nixon is starting to look pretty good by comparison. I need a drink.
Within days of the end of the Democratic convention of 1972, it was apparent to all that McGovern's candidacy was self destructing. His campaign had been inadvertently sabotaged by Thomas Eagleton (his own running mate). During the vetting process, Eagleton never revealed to the McGovern people his history of mental illness and substance abuse. The press revealed it for him. He was replaced on the ticket by Kennedy brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, but by then the damage was done. In the end he would lose every state in the union with the exceptions of Massachusetts and the District of the Columbia - to the eternal pride of those two regions, I'm sure. George McGovern was even defeated in his native South Dakota.
Forty years ago, right at this very moment, the legendary Gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, was covering the Nixon/McGovern race for Rolling Stone Magazine. Earlier in the year during the first primaries, George McGovern was thought to be such a ridiculous long shot for the nomination, no one in the press took him seriously - no one but Thompson that is. He rose so high that summer, only to plunge into the depths in the autumn. McGovern was even betrayed by his own Democratic party. The old-guard pols like Chicago mayor, Dick Daily, knew the direction this visionary statesman wanted to take America and they would have none of it. In the hours leading up to what everyone knew was going be McGovern's defeat, Hunter wrote these frustrated words:
"This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it - that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."
Thompson was way off in his assumption. 1972 was not the year we were to come face to face with the sick reality of what the United States has become. Four long decades later we're still in denial apparently. I don't know about you folks but I'm bracing myself for eight years of Mitt Romney. Forget the drink, I could use some heroin right about now.
"Blessed are the Peacemakers
For they shall be called, "Sons of God"
-Jesus of Nazareth
Yes, then and for the rest of his long life, George McGovern was a passionate advocate for peace. He also forever altered the face of the Democratic party in 1972 when, during the platform hearings at the convention that summer, he expanded the participation of women and minorities. Just one of the direct legacies of that long ago campaign is the administration of Barack Obama. I wonder if on this beautiful October morning the American people truly appreciate the debt of gratitude they owe George McGovern. Probably not.
Forty years ago the people of this country were handed - on a silver platter - one of the most decent and thoughtful men ever to seek the highest office in the world - and we blew it. We just tossed him aside for the likes of Dick Nixon - a president so completely mired in corruption he would resign from office in disgrace less than two years later. Eight years after the '72 campaign, George was defeated for reelection, politically drowning in the tide that sent a feeble-minded, failed "B" movie actor to the White House.
In 1984 he once again sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency. During this period even had a go at hosting Saturday Night Live for an evening! By this time America was in a self-induced coma, a side effect of the so-called "Reagan Revolution". George McGovern's brand of liberalism seemed to most Americans a quaint relic of a past they did not wish to return to. The nomination went to the more centrist Walter Mondale.
In the ensuing years he would serve honorably as the distinguished, elder statesman of American liberalism, always off on the peripherals of America's political dialogue with those insightful nuggets of sage wisdom, the occasional book, and advice for anyone with the good sense to seek it. George McGovern was one of the very few politicians I can honestly say that I loved. He's gone now, and he's not coming back.
One Bright Shining Moment:
The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern
narrated by Amy Goodman
This excellent documentary came out a few years ago. If you don't now completely understand what was lost when this doomed country rejected George McGovern forty years ago, you will after viewing it. Here's a link to order it off of Amazon.com:
First my Uncle Jerry; now George McGovern. This really has been a particularly nasty week at casa de Degan.