McGovern was often criticized for driving the Democratic Party to the left and into “the wilderness” as smug denizens of the Beltway and Establishment Democrats would suggest, but it was largely sour grapes. In a “brief, shining moment,” when the Party was adrift and leaderless, McGovern returned it to its liberal roots and principles, asserting, even among the chaos of his democracy-in-action constituencies and issues-oriented campaign, the revitalization of New Deal liberalism with the social causes of the day: civil rights, gay rights, women’s reproductive rights, strong environmentalism, and a foreign policy which de-emphasized American interventionism and war.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing, but it bears considering that all America’s wars post-Vietnam — not humanitarian interventions, such as the NATO action in Kosovo — were started by Republican administrations. Still, one Vietnam-era result of our increasingly technological warfare is the American public’s intolerance for high casualties such as the unimaginable 55,000 troops that died in Vietnam. And yet, the mainstreaming of once considered marginal social issues, which coalesced around McGovern’s campaign, have led to great progress. Would DADT have happened without McGovern? Or the almost complete public acceptance of marriage equality rights by the children of McGovern’s young crusaders and the generation which first took to the streets to fight for their rights? It’s impossible to say; as one of those vexing “what if” historical questions that will keep us up at night. But for me, I believe George McGovern came along at a moment in history to give voice to the voiceless and to those traumatized by the slaying of their champion, Bobby Kennedy. And he made a difference.
Those who blame McGovern for hastening the rise of the right in America, the counter-revolution ushered in by the election of Ronald Reagan, are victims of short-sighted hubris. Their premise is based on the iffy proposition that Richard Nixon could have been defeated by so-called “centrist” Establishment Democrats — Hubert Humphrey or Ed Muskie. (Ironically, by today’s standards Humphrey and Muskie would be considered flaming liberals.) But they never quite reconciled themselves to the fact that McGovern beat his Establishment opponents fair and square, and in the process exposed their flaws and weaknesses as candidates. Candidly, Humphrey was more than a decade past his prime, and Muskie self-destructed all on his own. When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 the country was already veering right, and no candidate the Democrats could throw at him in 1972 stood a good chance of beating him. Moreover, Nixon’s demise amid the scandal and coverup of Watergate handed the Democrats, behind Jimmy Carter, a golden opportunity to reverse the rise of the right, nip it in the bud with the wave Democratic Congressional elections, before the right had jumped onto the Reagan bandwagon.
Even in his magnificent defeat to Nixon, losing every state except Massachusetts, George McGovern laid the groundwork for a reformist Democratic Party, impelled by the over-reach and excesses of Watergate, to reboot and reset its true North course. Jimmy Carter was himself a beneficiary of the primary electoral reforms which did away, at least in that earlier incarnation, with the influence of party bosses and the infamous “smoke-filled rooms.” George McGovern was blameless. In fact, his standing as a man of honesty and principle grew with the American people as the polls have shown.
Some would argue that the Watergate revelations, which eventually led to Nixon’s downfall, were the high-water mark of American journalism. Surveying the decrepit state of the media landscape today, it is hard to make the counter-argument, although there are hopeful offshoots of nontraditional media springing up from the internet, the blogosphere, and social media. In one of those strange twists of fate, George McGovern figures as a major protagonist in a scene from Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail by the one and only “Gonzo” journalist, creator of the much-copied but never mastered genre, and McGovern admirer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. His book, derived from a series of articles for Rolling Stone magazine, is the single finest account of the 1972 campaign. It was named by New York University’s School of Journalism as one of the “Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States in the 20th Century.”
It may surprise those who are familiar with that noxious example of pulp political gossip journalism known as Game Change, that its notorious urinal scene was, memorably, first written by Hunter Thompson. The contemporary Memorex copy, recounted on more than one occasion by Rachel Maddow, places the Republican presidential candidates in a line at the urinals taking a piss during a pre-debate bathroom break, laughing and mocking Mitt Romney, as Romney stood unseen behind them. Or so the story goes. It so delighted the producers of the loosely-based HBO film version that the Steve Schmidt character is pictured taking a piss while answering reporters’ questions over his shoulder. What could be more real-scatalogique and at the same time acceptable in Beltway society? Here is the genuine and original bathroom urinal scene, written in the first person by Dr. Thompson:
McGovern was shaken by the news that his erstwhile ally, Iowa Senator Harold Hughes had endorsed Ed Muskie, and Thompson conveyed that moment more vividly than anyone else, in a chance encounter with the candidate, when he was most exposed in the men’s room of a hotel in Exeter, New Hampshire.“I found George (McGovern) downstairs in the men's room, hovering into a urinal and staring straight ahead at the gray marble tiles. “Say... ah ... I hate to mention this,” I said. “But what about this thing with Hughes?" He flinched and quickly zipped his pants up, shaking his head and mumbling something about "a deal for the Vice Presidency.”
I do not believe in fantastical synchronicities spanning thirty years of political reporting, more than a generation removed, when memory or knowledge of Hunter’s work may have faded. I do not believe the Game Change scene happened as described. At best it is a composite by “authors” who were not there; at worst, the imaginings of a Thompson wannabe, who appropriated not only his “National Affairs” editor title at Rolling Stone, but also riffed on Hunter’s signature line “fear and loathing” for an article and book chapter title, and used the Beltway’s unimaginative cliché “Agonistes” as in “Obama Agonistes” ripped off from the title of the great historian Garry Will’s, Nixon Agonistes.
A line of acknowledgment to Thompson in the book would have sufficed. Yet Hunter himself captured the essence of this new breed of faux “journalist” peddling their garbage in the stultifying and incestuous Beltway milieu, which is not a geographic location as much as a state of being:
In chronicling George McGovern’s doomed but splendid campaign, Thompson offered a prophetic distillation of the perilous crossroads at which we had arrived as a nation at that moment in history. It is as terrifyingly true today as it was then, for it could set our course — a staggering, unending nightmare for this country — for the next thirty years:“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”
“If the current polls are reliable... Nixon will be re-elected by a huge majority of Americans who feel he is not only more honest and more trustworthy than George McGovern, but also more likely to end the war in Vietnam. The polls also indicate that Nixon will get a comfortable majority of the Youth Vote. And that he might carry all fifty states... 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. The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes... understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose... Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”
Even though urged by his aides, George McGovern never talked up his military service in WW II. Unlike today’s panoply of odious Republican chicken hawks, from George W. Bush who “served” stateside in the “champagne National Guard” to Dick Cheney who took multiple deferments while sending thousands of our young men and women to be killed and maimed in their wars of choice, to the repulsive Romney clan of rich privileged men who avoided service in the military like the plague — Mitt Romney was living in a castle in France while John Kerry and John McCain served in Vietnam — George McGovern was a Liberator bomber pilot who, at age 23, flew some 35 missions over Nazi Germany. He once described flying the Liberator as driving a Mack truck without brakes or power steering. When his plane was hit by flak he skillfully crash landed it on a dime, for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was rescued by Yugoslav partisans. And yet we are perpetually bombarded by propaganda from slack-jawed punks like Karl Rove that Democrats are “soft” on defense. I would argue that it is precisely because Democrats know, and have historically known war and its consequences, that they do not engage in the militaristic jingoism and warmongering rhetoric of MIA Republicans like Mitt Romney, who has no earthly idea what George McGovern knew from experience and is, therefore, so terribly dangerous to our country.
In his final book, “What It Means to Be a Democrat,” released last November, George McGovern wrote:
George McGovern’s 1972 campaign produced the most beautiful political buttons of any modern presidential campaign including, notably, the first environmental pins and one very valuable pin that is said to have been designed by famous graphic artist Peter Max. (See illustrations, below.)“We are the party that believes we can’t let the strong kick aside the weak. Our party believes that poor children should be as well educated as those from wealthy families. We believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes and that everyone should have access to health care.” Given our current economic burdens, he said, there has “never been a more critical time in our nation’s history” to rely on those principles. “We are at a crossroads over how the federal government in Washington and state legislatures and city councils across the land allocate their financial resources. Which fork we take will say a lot about Americans and our values.”
Rest in peace, George.