To the slanting wall above my desk is taped a large “Come Home America/ Vote McGovern Shriver ’72” poster. Designed by artist Leonard R. Fuller, the collage fills an outline of the United States with iconographic images, historic statuary, and photos of unprepossessing but individuated Americans. The message is peace and brotherhood and a return to the ideals of the Founders. The mood is civics-class hippie, antiwar wife-of-a-Rotarian, liberal community-college-professor-who-cries-at-“America the Beautiful.” Like George McGovern himself, the poster suggests that a hopeful and patriotic mild radicalism resides on Main Street America. Or as Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe once asked, what’s so funny ‘bout peace, love, and understanding?
Even now, 30 and three years after Sen. George McGovern of Mitchell, South Dakota was buried by Richard M. Nixon under an electoral-vote landslide of 520-17-1 (Virginia elector Roger MacBride, heir to the Little House on the Prairie goldmine, bolted Nixon for Libertarian John Hospers), “McGovernism” remains Beltway shorthand for a parodistic liberalism that is, at once, ineffectual, licentious, and wooly-headed. It stands for “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” as the Humphrey-Jackson Democrats put it.
But perhaps, as George McGovern ages gracefully while his country does not, it is time to stop looking at McGovern through the lenses of Scoop Jackson and those neoconservative publicists who so often trace their disenchantment with the Democratic Party to the 1972 campaign. What if we refocus the image and see the George McGovern who doesn’t fit the cartoon? Son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister who had played second base in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, this other George McGovern revered Charles Lindbergh as “our greatest American” and counted among his happiest memories those “joyous experiences with my dad” hunting pheasants. He was voted “The Most Representative Senior Boy” in his high school and went to the college down the street, walking a mile each morning to Dakota Wesleyan and then coming home for lunch.
This other George McGovern was a bomber pilot who flew 35 B-24 missions in the Dakota Queen, named after his wife, Eleanor Stegeberg of Woonsocket, South Dakota, whom he had courted at the Mitchell Roller Rink. He grew up in and remains a congregant of the First United Methodist Church of Mitchell; he knows by heart the “old hymns” and sings them aloud “with the gusto of those devout congregations that shaped my life so many years ago.” This other George McGovern is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan and member in good standing of the Stan Musial Society. He lives most of the year in Mitchell, his hometown, and says, “There is a wholesomeness about life in a rural state that is a meaningful factor. It doesn’t guarantee you are going to be a good guy simply because you grow up in an agricultural area, but I think the chances of it are better, because of the sense of well-being, the confidence in the decency of life that comes with working not only with the land but also with the kinds of people who live on the land. Life tends to be more authentic and less artificial than in urban areas. You have a sense of belonging to a community. You’re closer to nature and you see the changing seasons.”
This George McGovern, dyed deeply in the American grain, is a hell of a lot more interesting than the burlesque that was framed by his neocon critics.
On a clement November morn, I chatted with Senator McGovern in his room at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. He was in town for a memorial service for his friend, the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), another casualty of 1980, when a pack of liberal Senate Democratic lions were defeated by New Right “family values” Republicans, many of them with rather more unconventional domestic lives than the liberals.
Targeted by Terry Dolan and NCPAC, McGovern was trounced 58-39 percent by the ineloquent James Abdnor. McGovern can laugh now about the perversity of the 1980 election. “It ticked me off, and it was also kind of laughable. A group called American Family Index rated us. I came out with a zero, Jim Abdnor got a perfect score. Here I am a guy who has been married to the same woman for 37 [now 62] years with five children and ten grandchildren and I’m running against Jim Abdnor, a 58-year-old bachelor who gets a 100 percent rating. I’m not against 58-year-old bachelors, not for one minute, but they’re hardly a symbol of what promotes the American family.”
McGovern is, as you might guess, an opponent of the Iraq War and the Bush administration, which he finds appallingly un-conservative. “I like conservatives,” he says, citing Bob Dole and Barry Goldwater. “Bob Taft I always admired.” He grins. “But I don’t like these neoconservatives worth a damn! They have this view that we are so much more powerful than any other country in the world that we need to run the world—none of this business of coexistence. I think that’s just terrible. It’s not conservatism, and it’s not liberalism, either. It’s a new doctrine that I find frightening. If Iraq hadn’t gone sour, there was a whole string of countries they were gonna knock off. That’s not conservatism to me.”
I ask if Iraq is yet in Vietnam’s class as a foreign-policy disaster. “The casualty rate isn’t nearly as high,” he responds, “but the assumptions are just as misguided. Vietnam was a logical expression of the Cold War ideology that we operated under for half a century. If you accepted the view that we had to confront communism wherever it raised its head, Vietnam became perfectly logical.” (McGovern quotes approvingly his pheasant-hunting friend, University of South Dakota history professor Herbert Schell, who told a reporter in 1972, “He is the only nominee of either major party since World War II who has not accepted the assumptions of the Cold War.” Bob Taft would have been on the list, too, had he been the GOP nominee in 1948 or ‘52.)
What advice does McGovern, one of the first Democrats to dissent from a Democratic war in the 1960s, have for antiwar Republicans? “Make a little more noise,” he says. He points to the House Republicans who voted against the Iraq War. “They’re the kind of Republicans I’ve always admired. They’re close to where my father would have been. He was a lifelong Republican. My dad was a big admirer of old Bob La Follette and voted for him when he ran for president. It’s an honorable tradition to be a dissenting Republican.” (One of McGovern’s early enthusiasms as a senator was a war-profits tax, which came straight out of the La Follette tradition.)
With the Oregon Republican and neo-Taftie Mark Hatfield, McGovern sponsored the 1970 McGovern-Hatfield “Amendment to End the War,” which called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and “an end to all U.S. military operations in or over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos no later than December 31, 1971.”
Impatient with the chronically cautious, with the kind of eunuchs who tell you behind closed doors that they’re against a war but don’t want to risk their position by taking a public stand, McGovern told his colleagues, “Every Senator in this Chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This Chamber reeks of blood.”
It still does, senator. It still does.
Robert Sam Anson wrote in McGovern, his fine biography, “To the extent that his vision of life is bounded by certain, immutable values—the importance of family, the dependence on nature, the strength of community, the worth of living things—he is a conservative. He seeks not so much to change America as to restore it, to return it to the earliest days of the Republic, which he believes, naively or not, were fundamentally decent, humane, and just. Like the Populists, he is willing to gamble with radical means to accomplish his end. There remains in him, though, as it remained in the Populists, a lingering distrust of government, a suspicion of bigness in all its forms.”
I read that to McGovern. Was there a “conservative” side to him that somehow people missed?
“Absolutely,” he replies. “I remember that observation. I’m a confirmed liberal, but I think there’s a conservative aspect to liberalism at its best”: an awareness of limits, a respect for tradition, a love of the familiar. For instance, McGovern writes in his autobiography, “I prefer old houses or churches or public buildings that are built for the ages rather than modern-style structures that quickly deteriorate. I am uncomfortable with any translation of the Bible other than the magnificent King James version.” He traces this “sense of stability and permanence” to his thrifty family of Dakota Methodists.
“Throughout his congressional career, George McGovern won elections by conceptualizing his constituents as peaceful Christian agriculturalists,” wrote South Dakota State University political scientist Gary Aguiar. He spoke South Dakotan as fluently as he spoke liberalese, and when he asked, in 1972, “Who really appointed us to play God for people elsewhere around the globe?” he was grounded in plains soil as surely as Scoop Jackson was riding first class aboard Boeing.
For sharing his father’s skepticism about military crusades, McGovern, holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, was mocked for being “weak on defense.” Stephen Ambrose, who wrote up McGovern’s military career in The Wild Blue, thought that he ought to have used his bomber pilot experience “to more effect in his 1972 presidential campaign.”
“I think it was a political error,” McGovern tells me, “but I always felt kind of foolish talking about my war record—what a hero I was. How do you do that?”
Well, you don’t if you’re a polite, decent fellow from Mitchell, South Dakota—even when you’re being pilloried as a Nervous Nellie by think-tank commanders who wouldn’t know an M-1 Garand from a grenade. LBJ had urged McGovern to sell himself as an avenging angel of the air, but McGovern demurred, saying that “it was not in my nature to turn the campaign into a constant exercise in self-congratulatory autobiography.”
McGovern lost not only because the bomber pilot was transmogrified into a cringing apostle of appeasement. His disastrous selection of the dishonest mental patient Thomas Eagleton as his first running mate derailed the campaign coming out of the convention. (Hunter S. Thompson is brilliantly savage on the phony martyr Eagleton in his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, the best book on the election.) The shooting and crippling of George Wallace prevented a probable third-party bid by Wallace that might have attracted 15-20 percent of the general election vote and tipped a number of states McGovernward.
I suppose no Democrat could have defeated Nixon in 1972. The incumbent’s popularity was buoyed by a fairly strong economy, détente with the USSR, the opening to China, and rumors of peace in Vietnam. But still, imagine George McGovern running not as an ultraliberal caricature but rather as the small-town Midwestern Methodist, a war hero too modest to boast of his bravery, a liberal with a sympathetic understanding of conservative rural America. That George McGovern might have given Nixon a run for Maurice Stans’s money.
In his autobiography Grassroots, McGovern wrote that “to this day I remain addicted to movies and those who act in them.” He was a bit starstruck, and the stars reciprocated: his 1972 campaign featured prominently Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, Dennis Weaver, and other stellar eminences of varying magnitudes. Alas, their presence lent the McGovern campaign a taint of Hollywoodish decadence that partly erased the South Dakota Methodist McGovern who would have played so much better in Middle America. “I’ve wondered about that myself,” McGovern says. “I still treasure their endorsement, but it may have offset the South Dakota image.”
As for acid, amnesty, and abortion, McGovern’s positions now seem positively temperate: he favored decriminalizing marijuana; he argued against “the intrusion of the federal government” into abortion law, which should be left to the states; and, as he told me, “I could not favor amnesty as long as the war was in progress, but once it was over, I’d grant amnesty both to those who planned the war and those who refused to participate. I think that’s a somewhat conservative position.”
In the home stretch of the ’72 campaign, McGovern was groping toward truths that exist far beyond the cattle pens of Left and Right. “Government has become so vast and impersonal that its interests diverge more and more from the interests of ordinary citizens,” he said two days before the election. “For a generation and more, the government has sought to meet our needs by multiplying its bureaucracy. Washington has taken too much in taxes from Main Street, and Main Street has received too little in return. It is not necessary to centralize power in order to solve our problems.” Charging that Nixon “uncritically clings to bloated bureaucracies, both civilian and military,” McGovern promised to “decentralize our system.”
In the clutter and chaos of the campaign, one discerns themes that place McGovern on a whole other plane from that drab anteroom of Democratic losers, the Mondales and Dukakises and Humphreys and Kerrys. George McGovern had convictions; like Barry Goldwater in 1964, he stood for a set of ideals rooted in the American past. He spoke of open government, peace, the defense of the individual and the community against corporate power, a Congress that reasserts the power to declare war. After Eagleton’s petulant departure, McGovern chose as his veep the undervalued Sargent Shriver, founding member of the America First Committee, a pro-life Catholic who admired Dorothy Day.
Unlike the bilious Ed Muskie, who dismissed George Wallace’s Florida primary victory as a triumph of racism, McGovern credited Wallace’s appeal to “a sense of powerlessness in the face of big government, big corporations, and big labor unions.” He asked Wallace for his endorsement, though as he recalls with a smile, “He said, ‘Sena-tah, if I endorsed you I’d lose about half of my following and you’d lose half of yours.’” Well, maybe, guv-nah—but just think of the coalescent possibilities of the remaining halves.
“It is not prejudice to fear for your family’s safety or to resent tax inequities. … It is time to recognize this and to stop labeling people ‘racist’ or ‘militant,’ to stop putting people in different camps, to stop inciting one American against another,” said McGovern, who called the Wallace vote “an angry cry from the guts of ordinary Americans against a system which doesn’t seem to give a damn about what is really bothering people in this country today.” Yet McGovern defended busing, in which children were uprooted, sent away from neighborhoods, and a pitiless war was waged upon working-class urban Catholics.
Look: George McGovern was a liberal Democrat. He voted for social-welfare programs of every shape and size; his philosophy then and now was a product, he says, of the Social Gospel movement, which translates Christianity into an interventionist welfare state.
But at its not-frequent-enough best, McGovernism combined New Left participatory democracy with the small-town populism of the Upper Midwest. In a couple of April 1972 speeches, he seemed to second Barry Goldwater’s 1968 remark to aide Karl Hess that “When the histories are written, I’ll bet that the Old Right and the New Left are put down as having a lot in common and that the people in the middle will be the enemy.”
“[M]ost Americans see the establishment center as an empty, decaying void that commands neither their confidence nor their love,” McGovern asserted in one of the great unknown campaign speeches in American history. “It is the establishment center 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. As Walter Lippmann once observed, ‘There is nothing worse than a belligerent professor.’”
Try to imagine a Democratic backbencher, let alone a presidential candidate, saying as much today. No wonder the scriveners of the Suffocating Center have no more potent imprecation in their thesauri than “McGovernism.”
Candidate McGovern called for a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and South Korea and a partial pullout of troops from Europe. In his acceptance speech, which with exquisitely bad planning was delivered at 3:00 a.m. eastern time, or primetime in Guam, McGovern declared, “This is also the time to turn away from excessive preoccupation overseas to rebuilding our own nation.” Close your eyes and you can hear McGovern’s prairie drawl backing Merle Haggard’s latest release: “Let’s get out of Iraq and get back on the track/And let’s rebuild America first.”
“Come home, America,” McGovern pled in that 1972 campaign. “Come home from the wilderness of needless war and excessive militarism.”
“Come home, America,” the most moving, the most resonant, the truest political slogan in the history of our Republic, was suggested by Eleanor McGovern after she saw the phrase in a speech by Martin Luther King. Because it echoed the peaceful dreams of the old Middle American isolationists and because it drew a sharp contrast between the vision of the Founders and the condition of modern America, McGovern was roasted for the slogan by the Vital Centurions.
“Late in the campaign I was having a visit with Clark Clifford,” remembers McGovern, “and I said, ‘Clark, just out of curiosity, what do you think of my slogan, Come Home America?’ He said, ‘Well, George, to be honest with you, I don’t know what it means.’”
Of course he didn’t! No bumper sticker that Clark Clifford understood would have been worth the vinyl it was printed on.
“Food, farmers and his fellow man—those are the foundation stones upon which George McGovern has built his philosophy of life,” ran a flattering press account early in the senator’s career, and in his retirement he returned to that trinity.
Appointed U.S. ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture by President Clinton, McGovern lobbied for a universal school-lunch program funded partly by a $1.2 billion annual U.S. contribution. As an isolationist skeptical of foreign aid, I am able to restrain my huzzahs, but I’d sure as hell rather spend a billion buying lunch for kids in Bangladesh than $300 billion occupying Iraq.
In his latest book, The Essential America, McGovern keeps the faith of ’72. “Let’s support our troops by keeping them safely at home with their families rather than dispatching them abroad under the cockeyed notion of what our president has called ‘preemptive war,’” he advises. The petty tyrannies and indignities of the war on terror infuriate him: “I have no fear of doing battle with some character threatening me with a box cutter. What sets my teeth on edge is seeing a frail little aging woman trying to get her shoes off to be searched, lest she slip by with some trinket that could endanger the republic.” He quotes Dwight Eisenhower at greater length than any another political figure in The Essential America. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address warning of the dangers of the military-industrial complex is virtual samizdat in the age of Homeland Security; while McGovern remains fond of Adlai Stevenson, he admits that in the postwar era, Ike “was the best president at recognizing the dangers of excessive military outlays. And he showed great courage in stopping the Israeli move against Egypt over the Suez Canal.”
He calls the Patriot Act “completely unnecessary … a contradiction of the Bill of Rights” and counsels resistance if and when the federal police come for our library cards: “I’ll go to jail rather than accept such an invasion of my freedom as an American.”
At 83, George McGovern remains a voice for peace and freedom in a party that looks ready to nominate the militaristic schoolmarm Hillary Clinton as its next standard-bearer. Oh, how the Democrats could use a bracing shot of McGovernism.