When George McGovern passed away over the weekend at age 90, it was the passing of a figure out of his time. And yet truths he told are timeless. I met McGovern in 1984, when it was my job to help the manager of his landmark 1972 presidential campaign, Gary Hart, defeat him in the Democratic presidential race.
McGovern, an earnest prairie populist son of a preacher, a man of the New Deal and World War II who became the champion of the anti-Vietnam War movement and, ironically, given his straitlaced lifestyle, a hero of the counter-culture of the '60s and early '70s, had lost his South Dakota seat in the U.S. Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980. Having run twice before for president -- belatedly in 1968 to pick up the fallen banner of Robert F. Kennedy, then sweeping to the 1972 Democratic nomination before losing to Richard Nixon in an historic landslide -- McGovern in 1984 mounted a classic protest candidacy.
He was quite a figure in 1984. One of the best things about having smaller states early in the presidential campaign process is their human scale and the accessibility they afford. McGovern did much, though hardly most, of his campaigning from a sofa in the lobby of the grand old Savery Hotel in Des Moines, where much of the national political world congregated that winter. McGovern went around the state giving speeches, of course, but he also held forth that cold winter in the lobby of the Savery, where the media gathered, not far from the popular hotel bar as it happened, like a serene yet still fierce Obi-Wan Kenobi of the left. He was a pleasure to speak with.
McGovern had little chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, much less the presidency that year against incumbent President Ronald Reagan. He was there to make a stand, to signal that he and the causes he represented had not gone away, despite his landslide presidential defeat and the landslide loss of his Senate seat.
I got to Iowa, as Hart's political director there, four weeks before the caucuses. Hart, the McGovern campaign manager of '72-turned-U.S. senator from Colorado, was languishing in fifth place, in single digits, while former Vice President Walter Mondale, the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, was cruising far out in front with over 50% in the Iowa polls.
Our official goal was a respectable fourth, perhaps third, in a state in which Hart's campaign had imploded the previous fall. But the real goal, articulated only to a few, was a surprise second, to reshape the race and make possible a victory in the New Hampshire primary eight days after Iowans voted in their caucuses.
There was no chance to catch Mondale, especially with limited funds for advertising, but there were three candidates who could be caught. John Glenn, a boyhood hero for his historic orbital spaceflight, had been running second in national polls but had little knack for campaigning in the states. Alan Cranston, my home state California senator who appointed me to the Air Force Academy (which I did not attend), was well-organized and had pockets of appeal. And there was McGovern, the sentimental choice. Jesse Jackson, a huge presence in later states, had little support in snowy Iowa.
With a greatly heightened campaign tempo, Hart quickly passed Glenn. With aggressive strikes into Cranston's areas of strength, sometimes undertaken via risky flights on small planes, Hart passed the peace candidate who also championed very big ticket redundant weapons systems.
McGovern was another, more complicated, matter. After managing McGovern's campaign but before winning election to the Senate, Hart in 1973 wrote a book on the campaign called Right From the Start. Following an intriguing recounting of the campaign, he argued that the Democratic Party needed to retool, to avoid clinging to New Deal shibboleths while embracing the New Deal ethic of experimentation for the common good. He also believed that the party could not simply be an anti-war party, that it needed a credible doctrine of national security.
His solution, guided by Vietnam's lessons on the foolishness of reflexive interventionism, was to reform the military and get America off its fateful fixation on Middle Eastern oil. McGovern's was simpler: "Come home, America." Both opposed the little Latin American wars pushed by the Reagan Administration.
In the event, Hart was able to surge enough to finish a distant second in Iowa, with 16.5% of the vote to Mondale's 48.9%. McGovern was third, the only other candidate in double digits.
With the calculus of the race reshaped and strong organization in New Hampshire, Hart swept to a big win over Mondale there eight days later. McGovern, having come up short in Iowa, faded to fifth.
McGovern said he would drop out if he did not win the Massachusetts primary, held three weeks after Iowa. The Bay State was the only one he had carried in his loss to Nixon.
Hart swept to a big win there, as well, with McGovern third. After his second in Iowa, Hart went on to win 26 states, but fell short at the San Francisco convention against the much better organized and funded Mondale, the longtime party establishment favorite. After running even with Reagan in 1984 polling, Hart, following Reagan's landslide defeat of Mondale, became the frontrunner for 1988, with a big lead over George Bush, before running afoul of one of the more quaint (and poorly reported) sex scandals of political history.
As for McGovern, well, after his last campaign stands in Iowa and Massachusetts came up short, he lectured and wrote and taught. All the while, his young acolytes from the '72 campaign were making their way in politics and life, becoming key players all across the country.
Two in particular, whom Hart had made McGovern's Texas campaign co-coordinators, retained not only a special fondness for McGovern but had the ability to act on it. In 1998, Bill and Hillary Clinton made McGovern the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations' food programs, headquartered in Rome.
There Ambassador McGovern continued his lifelong work on alleviating hunger, work which in America had him co-sponsoring legislation to expand such programs with his friend, Republican Senator Bob Dole, who just penned this heartfelt tribute to McGovern in the Washington Post.
McGovern may not have been right about everything, and this is not the time to parse his entire agenda, but he was definitely, indeed historically, right on some of the biggest things.
The Democratic Party reform commission he headed after the bloody debacle of the 1968 Chicago convention opened up the presidential nomination process beyond the bosses who controlled so much of it, giving power to constituencies long taken for granted or shut out altogether.
And there is Vietnam.
The man who defeated McGovern and his running mate Sargent Shriver (father of former California First Lady Maria Shriver and a mentor of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) was of course Richard Nixon. In many ways a sophisticated and forward-looking figure who opened up American relations with China, it's Nixon's fate to be best known for two things. The Watergate scandal, which could have handed the election to McGovern had the full truth been known during the '72 campaign. And the Vietnam War, which Nixon did not begin, but which he took a very long and torturously tortuous time ending.
The reality is that the peace terms that Nixon and National Security Advisor/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ultimately got were no better than those that McGovern and his moderate Republican ally, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, advocated all along. The difference? Far more American dead. And vastly more Vietnamese dead.
McGovern was right from the start about the Vietnam War. This plain-spoken World War II hero was right and the highly credentialed experts were wrong. His campaign lost, but the force of the movement it represented prodded Nixon into pursuing stalled Vietnam peace talks.
McGovern noted that it was not some angry extremist fringe that devised the Vietnam War but what writer David Halberstam called, rather ironically, in his landmark book on the war, "the best and the brightest."
"It is the establishment center," McGovern declared, "that has led us into the stupidest and cruelest war in all history. That war is a moral and political disaster -- a terrible cancer eating away the soul of the nation. ... It was not the American worker who designed the Vietnam war or our military machine. It was the establishment wise men, the academicians of the center."
Which is not to say that plain-spoken men of peace are always right. Or experts always wrong.
But it is to say that skepticism, especially in matters of life and death, is essential. And that intelligent dissent is always one of the greatest virtues in any democracy worthy of the name.
George McGovern lived these core ideals of the American Republic, acting in the tradition of Jefferson and the Enlightenment. And he lived them in dramatic action, in some of the most turbulent times of American history.
That's why, as Hart wrote in this remembrance of McGovern a few days before he died, the "epic loser" McGovern is one of the most important winners in American political history.
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