I learned a few hard lessons about electoral politics that day. Being decent, humane, smart, caring, and brave was not enough.
Being a decorated war hero who flew 35 bomber missions against Nazi Germany didn't stop the Nixon Republicans from labeling McGovern unpatriotic. Caring enough about working men and women to write his history Ph.D. thesis about the 1914 Ludlow coal strike and massacre was not enough to keep AFL-CIO head George Meany from double-crossing McGovern when he became the nominee. Telling the truth about the immorality of the Vietnam War and the crookedness of the Nixon Administration did not convince nearly enough voters to win.
To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, America couldn’t handle the truth in 1972. Nor since, given that we still have an empire stretching across the globe.
Remembering George McGovern and Old-School Campaign Tools
Sound familiar? It should. I wrote something similar a few days ago when I learned of McGovern's death. I hadn't mentioned a couple things that Cobble does here, though. The first is his Ph.D. thesis, which to me is just an indication of where McGovern's real concerns lay. He was one of those folks who, despite being very successful, never forgot that there are plenty of people who are less fortunate through no fault of their own. It's interesting, but mainly in a historical sense. It might be enlightening to consider how few of today's congressmen have such an academic background, or have done anything else in their lives that might indicate they have some understanding of what it's like to be a working stiff here in America.
The other thing is about George Meaney, and this point is something that is definitely relevant to our situation today. I'll let Wikipedia explain what Cobble meant there:
Meany opposed the anti-war candidacy of U. S. Senator George McGovern for the Presidency against incumbent Richard Nixon in 1972, despite McGovern's generally pro-labor voting record in Congress. He also declined to endorse Nixon. On Face the Nation in September 1972, Meany criticized McGovern's statements that the U.S. should respect other peoples' rights to choose communism, because there had never been a country that had voted for communism; he accused McGovern of being "an apologist for the Communist world". Following Nixon's landslide defeat of McGovern, Meany said that the American people had "overwhelmingly repudiated neo-isolationism" in foreign policy. Meany pointed out that the American voters split their votes by voting for Democrats in Congress. According to Meany, class resentment was a major reason that Nixon won 49 states against McGovern, despite the dislike of the Vietnam War by a majority of American voters.
Wikipedia: George Meany: 1972 Presidential Election
Meany wasn't one of those modern labor leaders who seem to be mostly interested in making their own lives better, rather than the people they're supposed to represent. He led a fight against corruption in labor unions, and was born into a blue collar family. He understood the working class, because he came from it. Still, Meany couldn't get past his own hangups about "communism", in quotes because he, like many Americans, had a view of the subject that was more based on prejudice than actual knowledge, to support the presidential candidate who would have made sure organized labor was protected. Instead, he helped lumber us with four more years of Nixon, which meant four more years of Vietnam, four more years of the Southern Strategy, and the beginning of the decline of organized labor in America. All because of an issue that wasn't relevant to organized labor.
Which, I think, is the lesson here. When Meany became a big political player, he forgot what was really important. The guy from the blue collar labor union background set the stage for the decline of organized labor. He did that, because he obsessed about winning a war against communism that couldn't be won. That war fell harder on the working class, his people, than it did on the rich or the upper middle class. If you don't believe that, consider that George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Mitt Romney all found something better to do than risk serving in Vietnam. While Bill Clinton stayed opposed to the war, the others supported it. Kids from the working class, though, were far less likely to have a route to Canada, a college deferment, or a relative who could get them a posting to the National Guard. Yet Meany ignored all this, in the name of combating something that was, at best, a theoretical consideration for the people he represented.
This sin of Meany's, what Cobble refers to as a betrayal of McGovern and the Democrats of that time, might not have been enough to ensure Nixon's victory in 1972. Meany's endorsement might not have been enough to give McGovern the White House, but to the members of his unions he was one of them, and his feelings would have been persuasive to some. It certainly made McGovern's showing worse. That showing helped to engender the changes that it would eventually occur in the Democratic Party. That party quickly turned its back on labor and liberalism generally, and eventually learned that it could do pretty much whatever it wants without losing labor's support.
In short, Meany was another progressive who forgot what was really important, once he became important. It's a tale we've seen many times since.