Saturday, November 3, 2012

On George McGovern

Although his name had become a kind of shorthand for leftwing political loserdom, there were layers to George McGovern—and layers between layers—that the ridicule and vitriol could never gauge or fathom or even recognize. In 1972, he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, who took every state except Massachusetts on his way to re-election. But that’s only because the Watergate investigation couldn’t keep pace with the voting schedule—mere months are all that separated a Nixon landslide from a McGovern one. The biggest mystery of that election is how McGovern could have let himself lose the labor vote, not just as a Democrat but as someone who had studied labor so extensively—who had, in fact, completed his history-doctoral dissertation on the Colorado coal-strike of 1913-14. That wasn’t the only compelling contradiction McGovern carried. They called him a pie-in-the-sky peacenik, for the way he protested the war in Vietnam. But having been a bomber-pilot in World War II, his pacifist tendencies were harder-earned (to say the least) than the combative tendencies of his political opponents, just about every single last one of them. He knew about the basic freedoms, and spent nearly his entire career advocating globally on behalf of one of them: the freedom from hunger. He did so before he was a Senator, as John F. Kennedy’s Food for Peace director, and then during the entirety of his career as congressman and senator, both before and after the 1972 defeat. And then he kept on doing it, as a private citizen. He had earned the right to take extreme stances, because he had lived in extreme circumstances. It was true for McGovern in both war and peace. He watched not one but two of his children die young of alcoholism, and wrote an incredibly painful and moving book, Terry, about the death of the first, in 1996: another extraordinary chapter in one of the most extraordinary unwritten bildungsromans in American public life: The Education of George S. McGovern. The mistakes he’d made as presidential candidate were not repeated twenty years later, when his Texas campaign manager ran against George H. W. Bush. And McGovern has to get part of the credit for that. Not just for providing Bill Clinton with an object lesson, but for providing him with an example of courage and ideals, not to mention the training and opportunity his campaign had provided. Even that late-in-life chapter from McGovern’s Education was 20 years ago now, the epic life contextualized in its broadly epic dimensions. What happened after is authorship, and sky-diving, and public-speaking, and making the non-partisan rounds with his fellow WWII fighter-pilot George H. W. Bush. Through it all ran a wry self-deprecation for his very real electoral failures, and an utterly deserved self-respect for those even realer successes that far transcended the merely electoral.