Former Sen. George S. McGovern was 90 when he died early this weekend, in the Dougherty Hospice House in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He had been in declining health for some time, suffering from exhaustion, from speaking difficulties and occasionally passing out. Until August, he had been splitting his time between his home in Mitchell, South Dakota, and Florida.
He is best remembered for his disastrous 1972 presidential campaign against incumbent Richard Nixon, in which he only won a majority of votes in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Less than two years after his defeat, however, McGovern saw Nixon wave goodbye as he was helicoptered away from the White House after resigning in disgrace over the Watergate affair. One popular bumpersticker of the time read: "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts." That same year, 1974, McGovern won his third and final term in the U.S. Senate.
During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I've been labeled a 'bleeding-heart liberal.' It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society's ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction "Love the neighbor as thyself."
—George S. McGovern, What It Means to Be a Democrat (2011).
His brand of politics was used by the Republicans to define other Democratic candidates for decades. A "McGovern liberal" was allegedly soft on defense, weak on the drug war, too compassionate for the poor and too interested in expanding government social programs. It was while campaigning in Nebraska in '72 that he was tarred with another Republican sound-bite that alliteratively transformed him into the candidate of "amnesty, acid and abortion." He did support amnesty for Vietnam draft protesters, including those of us who went to prison rather than serve, was pro-choice on reproductive rights despite personal opposition to abortion and backed reduced penalties for marijuana use, which his enemies managed to twist into favoring the use of hallucinogenic LSD.
The whole effort was an attempt to tie McGovern to radicals like SDS leader Tom Hayden and other leftists who had vigorously opposed the Vietnam War and proposed changes in the American system of governance that some people, including some of the radicals, called revolution. McGovern was no revolutionary. But that didn't stop him from being "swift-boated" before the term was invented.
Here was a man who had volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps when World War II broke out, had piloted 35 bombing missions in a B-24 Liberator named the "Dakota Queen" (for his wife, Eleanor) over German-occupied Europe, had won the Distinguished Flying Cross and had proved his courage under fire time and again. But his Republican foes three decades later made him out to be a coward and a traitor because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and support for deep cuts in the bloated Pentagon budget.
He was approached in late 1967 to run against Lyndon Johnson, but he turned down the invitation. By 1970, however, his anger over the continuing war—now expanded into Cambodia and the subject of immense protests on college campuses and elsewhere—had grown. This spurred him in the summer of '70 to join with Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, a decorated Navy veteran and liberal Republican—in an era when that subspecies still existed—to draft the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment
calling for an end of combat operations in Southeast Asia by the end of 1970 and a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by Dec. 31, 1971.
In support of the amendment, McGovern spoke briefly but ferociously on Sept. 1, 1970:
Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.
There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: "A contentious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood."
When he strode away from the podium back to his seat, you could have heard pin drop.
But when the vote was counted, the amendment had been defeated 55-39. Along with another amendment that sought to keep draftees from being shipped to Vietnam.
It was an easy cruise to the nomination in 1972. After the disarray and division left by the 1968 Democratic National Convention, there had been growing calls for weakening the power of party bosses to hand out favors and make back-room deals in selecting presidential nominees. From the complaints arose the McGovern-Fraser Commission—the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection—which reworked the process. McGovern's campaign manager, future Sen. Gary Hart, and Rick Stearns, an expert in the way the new system worked, put their emphasis on the new Iowa caucuses, seeing that as the way to leverage momentum that would carry over into the other state contests. It worked.
The general election campaign, however, was a mess. In addition to the expected enemies, a few labor leaders and establishment Democrats unhappy with the diminished status of party operatives, or just more conservative than McGovern, left the ranks. Some joined "Democrats for Nixon," organized by former Texas Gov. John Connally, a conservative then serving as Nixon's secretary of the Treasury. All this siphoned off party support from the get-go. McGovern's choice of Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate came to a bad end when it was discovered he had undergone electroshock therapy. McGovern's avowed "1000 percent support" for Eagleton turned to ashes as he was forced by attitudes about mental health to choose another vice presidential candidate. Nixon won by a landslide.
McGovern took his defeat bitterly at first. Understandably so, as he was shunned by party regulars at public get-togethers and saw many of those he had supported removed from positions of authority. But not too long after Nixon was inaugurated, he began making light of the loss. Among the lines that always drew a hearty laugh, even from those who reviled him, was
: "For many years, I wanted to run for the Presidency in the worst possible way—and last year I sure did."
Having lost his campaign for a fourth term in the Senate, McGovern ran a short-lived campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1984, coming in third in the Iowa caucuses but fifth in the New Hampshire primaries and third in Massachusetts behind his '72 campaign manager Gary Hart, and Walter Mondale, who eventually won the nomination.
Over the coming years, he lectured and wrote several books. In 1998, age 77, he began a three-year stint as President Bill Clinton's appointee as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. That placed him in a position to speak and act on an issue—hunger—that had been among his deepest concerns for four decades, beginning in earnest when he fought in the Senate to expand the food stamp program in 1970. In 2001, while still serving as ambassador, his book,The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger In Our Time, was published.
In his last years, he remained active, reading voraciously, just as he had done as a pilot when he lugged scholarly books aboard the "Dakota Queen" to fill down time between bombing runs, and writing books as well. In 2006, he wrote Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now
. In 2008, his book in the American President Series, Abraham Lincoln
, was published and, in 2011, What It Means to Be a Democrat
In an interview
with S. Clayton Moore in 2006, McGovern said:
I still think this is the greatest country on Earth. It must be great, because we make these horrendous mistakes, but we bounce back. I saw this country survive the Great Depression through the 1920s and 1930s, when I was growing up. I saw us not only survive, but win World War II, when we had to come back from almost nothing. I see this country slowly awakening to the environmental threat and doing something about it. It must be a great place.
Our condolences to his family and all who loved him.
This piece first appeared in Daily Kos