10/22/2012 03:11 pm ET

Too Decent to Win -- In Memory of George McGovern

In these final weeks of what seems the most interminable presidential campaign in memory, I think back 40 years to another political contest, when I was a 25 year-old advance man for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, who passed away this weekend.

Out of the year I spent in what many pundits called a quixotic "kiddie crusade," one scene sticks in my mind. I was alone with Senator McGovern in the penthouse of a high-rise hotel in a southwestern city. McGovern had just emerged from the bathroom where, to his surprise and amusement, there was a phone installed next to the toilet. He'd taken a welcoming call on that phone from the owner of the hotel, who had given us the suite gratis. I gingerly mentioned to McGovern that, according to local scuttlebutt, the hotel man had ties to organized crime. McGovern shrugged and, without comment, sat down across from me at a small dining table where a cheese sandwich, delivered by room service, was waiting for him. He cut the sandwich in half, held out the plate and asked, "Would you like to share it?"

I never forgot that prosaic scene because it said so much about the senator. History will not call him a "great" man. He is recalled, if at all, as the presidential standard-bearer who led his party to overwhelming defeat, while driving a significant faction of that party into the arms of Reagan's Republicans. Yet he should also be remembered as a fine human being -- possibly the most decent man I've known in politics.

On that same trip, I was with him at an airport when he was approached by an older man, loudly dressed and loudly spoken, who shouted "Hey, George!," slapped the senator on the back, and started babbling about some experience they had shared in South Dakota, interjecting a remark that was overtly racist. After the home boy had rushed off, McGovern turned to me and muttered, "He's a good supporter back home."

I realized that the senator was embarrassed -strangely, he was embarrassed for me, thinking that, as one of the many young dreamers in his campaign, I would be disturbed, even shocked, that there were such strange bedfellows within his political base. I don't believe that McGovern knew (as did the campaign managers) that I'd once briefly worked in the CIA, and so was not easily shocked by right-wing rants. Nor was he aware that back at campaign headquarters in my own state of California, I was distrusted by some fellow staffers because I had indelicately expressed a fervent conviction that the overriding purpose of our campaign was -- to win. If this seems to you a self-evident political axiom, then you probably were not what straying neo-conservatives later disparaged as "McGovern-ites."

And that raises a question which I've long pondered: If McGovern was too decent to win, was he also, perhaps, too decent to govern? Had he won the election in 1972, would he have staffed the West Wing with neophytes who ranked ideological purity far above electoral victory? Of course, there were plenty of hard-nosed, ambitious staffers in the campaign for whom youth and inexperience were not fatal flaws. Some matured and eventually rose to political heights -- like Bill and Hilary Clinton, running the campaign in Texas. Like my good friend Bill Lockyer, the California manager, then an unknown legislative staffer who went on to become a leader of the state legislature, Attorney General, and now State Treasurer.

A bigger problem was the deficit of sound advice to the candidate in the upper reaches of the campaign, that forced McGovern to weather one blunder after another. In the domestic policy line, there was an ill-conceived "chicken in every pot" economic plan. In foreign affairs, there was a proposal for the "internationalization" of Jerusalem, not a bad idea on academic paper, but predictably anathema to emotional supporters of Israel. That was supposedly one reason for the mass exodus of Jewish contributors to the neo-con fold, though I believe most of the defectors were disturbed to find that the Democratic Party was no longer the preserve of middle-aged white males -- a lesson driven home by an anarchic, free-for-all Democratic National Convention, aptly described by one campaign colleague as a "zoo". And then, of course, there was the hurried choice, without the now-customary exhaustive "vetting," of Senator Thomas Eagleton as vice-presidential running-mate, a choice which led to irreparable political disaster.

Despite all this, I believe George McGovern might have grown in the presidency -- as did Lincoln and Harry Truman. Surely, he might have made mistakes, but could four years of cumulative errors have been worse than four more years of Nixon and the nightmare of Watergate?

We will never know. And, I'm certain that, in what remains of my lifetime, we may again have the chance to elect a more decent, self-effacing man of unwavering high ideals as President of the United States.