As I watched President Obama spar with Republican nominee Mitt Romney earlier this week, I thought back to a seemingly more presidential debate in 1984.
In his final comments on a snowy February night in Iowa, former Sen. George McGovern challenged the Democrats to live up to their promises of change and legacy of service, beyond sloganeering, and then drew a standing ovation during the Des Moines Register debate among Democratic contenders with a moment of truth: "Don't throw away your conscience."
I'll never forget that moment in Iowa. Nor McGovern's extraordinary contributions to the Democratic Party, and our nation.
I'm a McGovern Democrat, now more than ever.
I still believe in the bright shining truth of McGovern words, as a decorated World War II bomber pilot, scholar and historian of coal miners, hugely admired and effective U.S. Senator and director of JFK's Food for Peace: "That you only have a realistic hope of ending poverty if you can somehow curb the destruction and waste and the devastation of war." As McGovern famously said: "I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."
As we wrestle Arizona from the Tea Party interlopers this election year, I still recall the courageous presence of George McGovern aside Cesar Chavez in Phoenix, in the midst of the 1972 election, as Chavez led his "fast for love" on behalf of migrant workers. Dolores Huerta introduced Senator McGovern in Phoenix that summer, declaring, "He does not stand with the Union, only when the cactus is bearing fruit." For his part, McGovern called Arizona's bill a "regressive and unjust legislation that hampers the collective bargaining process and the rights of organized labor."
While President Obama and I were only elementary school students in 1972, McGovern's groundbreaking campaign for party reform that year gave birth to our generation of activists and political leaders, and ultimately saved the Democratic Party from complete irrelevancy, as Washington Post columnist David Broder once noted:
But that campaign has had long-term consequences. As evidenced by the turnout for this reunion, McGovern's race attracted and trained a generation of young people who are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party today.
Youthful rebels then, gray-haired now, they still embody the two forces that define the Democratic Party -- an insistence on openness and reform and a commitment to peace. As Bill Clinton, one of thousands who got his first national experience as a McGovern volunteer, put it in his message to the gathering, they are all "McGovern's heirs."
Gary Hart, who was McGovern's campaign manager, made the bold statement that McGovern had "saved the Democratic Party" by forcing open the doors of a closed system and allowing all those outsiders -- the anti-Vietnam War amateurs -- to come in.
At the time, it certainly didn't look like salvation to party leaders, who saw the Democrats losing seat after seat in the McGovern debacle. But the energy and talent McGovern enlisted have proved to be the party's salvation. Without the reforms McGovern forced onto a reluctant Democratic establishment -- including guaranteed representation for women and minorities in the convention hall -- it is impossible to imagine that this year, the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination would be Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Now more than ever, Democrats need McGovern's inspiring and fearless vision and leadership.
We need McGovern's self-deprecating and cutting wit and resilience. We need his honesty in politics.
Boston Globe columnist James Carroll took McGovern's vindicated legacy one step further in his column in 2004: But George McGovern Was Right:
Here's the problem: In 1972, McGovern was right. If there is shame attached to that election, it is America's for having so dramatically elected the wrong man. Apart from the rank dishonesty of Richard Nixon and his administration (a pattern of lies that would be exposed in Watergate), there were two world-historic issues that defined that election, and on both Nixon was wrong. 1972 was a fork in the road, and history shows that the United States made a turn into a moral wilderness from which it has yet to emerge...
McGovern was an opponent of the "we/they" vision. A prophet of detente, he has since been vindicated by history. He offered America a way out of the trap that opposes "realist" and "idealist" perspectives. McGovern understood not only that the Vietnam War was wrong but that in the nuclear age, the realist is the one who sees that the structures of war itself must be systematically dismantled. One hears the complaint from today's Democrats that McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, did not tout his war hero's record, but that entirely misses his most important point -- that fear of war and glorification of war are simply not to be exploited for political purposes, whether at the personal level or the national. What McGovern the candidate refused to do is what American presidents should refuse to do.
George McGovern was right in 1972, in 1984, and today. His tireless dedication to ending poverty, ending wars, and ending injustice in the workplace remains as vital today as ever.
As the Democratic Party and President Obama scramble to formulate a lasting policy for change this election season, I hope they take McGovern's enduring challenge to heart:
"Don't throw away your conscience."