Image credit: Warren K. Leffler/Wikimedia Commons
George McGovern, whose presidential run in 1972 may have been the beginning of the end of liberalism in America, died yesterday:
He was an outspoken critic of one war, but a hero in another. He was a leading Democrat who came from Republican roots. He was a politician who cared more about being on the right side of an issue than on the popular side. George Stanley McGovern -- a staunch liberal who served South Dakota in the U.S. Senate and House for more than two decades and who ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic Party nominee for president in 1972 -- died Sunday at the age of 90, his family said.
George McGovern, an unabashed liberal voice, is dead
One of the things that is interesting is that many of the articles that I've read today about him use the word "dead", or the verb "died", to describe his passing. Too many times, people use words like "passed away" when describing someone's death, but not for George McGovern. I think that's appropriate, because if there was one thing George McGovern knew how to do, it was speak the truth plainly.
Maybe the greatest example of that was his speech in the Senate in 1970, during the Vietnam War, as described by Wikipedia:
During the floor debate McGovern criticized his colleagues opposing the [McGovern-Hatfield Amendment]:Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
The Senate reacted in startled, stunned silence, and some faces showed anger and fury; when one member told McGovern he had been personally offended by the speech, McGovern said, "That's what I meant to do."
Wikipedia: George McGovern
Some famous people's lives have taught me things. Frederick Douglass taught me about oppression and dealing with the powerful. George McGovern, by telling us uncomfortable truths and being pilloried for it, taught me something else that's equally important. He taught me that many people, when confronted with an uncomfortable truth that is clearly supported by the facts, or a comforting lie that isn't supported at all, will usually choose to believe the latter. As Taylor Marsh put it today:
The other part of this truth is McGovern also represented the ... inability of good men in the Democratic Party to market the principles and policies on which they stood.
It doesn’t matter if you’re right. You have to be able to sell it.
George McGovern Told the Truth About Nixon and Still Lost
Why should you have to sell the truth? It was certainly clear by 1970 that Vietnam was a disaster, and a disaster that was not only costing us lives and money, but was endangering our security as well. The Army was being asked to do the impossible, and like all armies in such situations, was having discipline problems. We had real enemies, both in Eastern Europe and Asia, who were more than happy to watch us expend our blood there.
Yet McGovern failed to "sell" us on this basic truth. Unfortunately, another thing he taught me was that it's a whole lot less important to understand the truth than it is to sell one's opinion. McGovern was a bona fide war hero, yet people like Nixon, who managed to avoid combat during the same war McGovern fought in, and Nixon's minions, many of whom also managed to avoided combat, got away with calling him and other congressmen who opposed the war "apostles of retreat and defeat". But leaving Vietnam would have meant admitting McGovern and other critics were right, and far too many Americans would have none of that.
McGovern could have used his war record as a bludgeon against Nixon and the other cowards and lunatics of the time, but he chose not to. As he put it:
I think it was a political error, but I always felt kind of foolish talking about my war record—what a hero I was. How do you do that? ... [I]t was not in my nature to turn the campaign into a constant exercise in self-congratulatory autobiography.
Come Home America (see NOTE 1)
He taught me that there are no points in American politics for being modest.
The sad irony of George McGovern's political fortunes is that he was actually the kind of politician we Americans say we want to vote for - an honest politician who will tell the truth, however unpleasant, and try to make his country a better place. Instead, America chose to vote for a liar who clearly wasn't interested in ending a war he had already been elected to end. It's a habit we still haven't gotten over decades later.
NOTE 1: While the Wikipedia mentions an article at the American Conservative by Bill Kauffman, that link no longer works. I remember McGovern saying this, though, so I'll forgo searching for the new location of the article.