George McGovern: ‘I present liberal values in a conservative, restrained way. I see myself as a politician of reconciliation’
To understand how deeply the moment of George McGovern’s efflorescence differs from our own, pick up the biography McGovern authorized a young Time magazine staffer to write as he began his 1972 presidential campaign. The author, Robert Sam Anson, had been taken prisoner in 1970 by Communists guerrillas in Cambodia who put a gun to his head and made him dig his own grave. Anson dedicated the book to these guards! Then, in his preface, he wrote of their profound admiration for George McGovern as a reason why he should be President of the United States.
The logic was a relic of the time. With the lying Richard Nixon following the lying Lyndon Johnson in the White House, the call for open, honest government associated with ascendent Baby Boomers — and those same voters’ longing for a quick end to the Vietnam War, even their suspicion we had picked the wrong side in that War — seemed to suggest a candidate like McGovern, who had overseen the process of opening the Democratic Party’s ossified boss-ridden nominating system, and pledged as president to remove all American forces from Southeast Asia within sixty days, was the Democratic future.
Hindsight has been cruel to that syllogism. McGovern lost the presidency in just about the greatest landslide in history—in a campaign that ended up with much of Middle America judging liberalism itself as alien and obtuse. In fact, after 2012, a year in which a majority of Republicans voters believe another decent-seeming Democrat is so alien and obtuse he could not have been born in America, maybe McGovern’s moment isn’t so different from our own after all. The passing of George Stanley McGovern at the age of 90 on Sunday reminds us of this space between the longing for unapologetic good-government liberalism and its decimation in a fallen political world—in which the decent and honorable simply get crushed.
Born in a tiny farming hamlet in South Dakota with a fundamentalist Methodist pastor for a father (surely a source of his intense moralism) and raised on the edge of poverty, McGovern flourished as a youngster, like Richard Nixon, in competitive debate. He was a star student at the local Wesleyan college, where he learned to fly a plane; after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Corps and became a heroic bomber pilot. He came away with a sense of war’s madness seared deeply into his soul—which helped make him a Cold War sketpic and a backer of Henry Wallace’s left-wing 1948 presidential bid. The example of Adlai Stevenson made him a Democrat: the Illinoisan seemed to teach that a politician could still prosper while remaining above the nasty political fray.
Now a college history professor (his dissertation was on the deadly labor wars in the Colorado coalfields in 1913 and ‘14), in an overwhelmingly conservative state he practically organized South Dakotan Democratic Party single-handedly. In 1956, when asked why someone as far left as he thought he could win a congressional seat there, he answered, “I can present liberal values in a conservative, restrained way. I see myself as a politician of reconciliation.”