I just learned that George McGovern has passed on. George McGovern ran for President against Richard Nixon in 1972.
As I’ve said on this blog before, I used to be more of a right-wing Republican. On account of that, I tended to associate McGovern with the smug, condescending, obnoxious, socialistic, soft-on communism, draft-dodging, unpatriotic, activist Left that emerged in the 1960’s-1970’s. (Or so I characterized it.)
But there were a variety of things that changed my mind about McGovern, even when I was a conservative. First, I was listening to McGovern on Sean Hannity’s show, and McGovern came across to me as a nice and decent guy. Second, McGovern came to Cincinnati (where I was living at the time) to speak about his service as a soldier in World War II, and it surprised me to learn that he was a veteran. Third, I was watching a 1972 McGovern campaign ad, in which a working class guy was challenging McGovern on welfare and asking why the poor can’t be put to work—-like cleaning the streets. McGovern responded that he agrees, and that his goal is for people to have jobs. See here for the commercial—-it’s the fifth from the left in the “Democrat” column. This commercial helped to shift my conception of the Left, for I had long regarded the Right as the ideology that wants for people to work, when, actually, the Left is for work, too! And, fourth, I read Bill Kauffman’s excellent book on anti-war conservatism, Ain’t My America, which presented George McGovern as a person of faith and as one who sought to understand George Wallace supporters rather than looking down on them. I read in another book, Grand New Party, that McGovern disdained bureaucracies, which resonated with me back when I was a conservative. See here for my post on Ain’t My America, and here for my post on Grand New Party.
Recently, I watched the Wonder Years episode about George McGovern. It was called “Politics as Usual.” On this episode, McGovern is a big stir. Kevin’s Mom notes that people at the college she attends are voting for McGovern, and she likes McGovern’s stance on women. Kevin’s Dad, a conservative, actually seems to like McGovern at first, even though at the end of the day he probably voted for Nixon. And Kevin’s girlfriend, Winnie, has joined the McGovern campaign and signed Kevin up for it because she opposes the Vietnam War, for her brother was killed in it. Kevin is jealous of the head McGovern campaign official in his area, for he feels that the guy has sights on Winnie. When Winnie goes to a late-night campaign meeting, Kevin breaks into the Democratic headquarters, and there he meets Senator McGovern (or, actually, someone playing him)! After McGovern loses badly, the campaign official tells Winnie that he didn’t expect for McGovern to win anyway, and he speculates to another campaign worker that Kennedy may run in the next election. Winnie is disappointed. But Kevin can see where he’s coming from—-that the campaign official will come back and fight another day. Kevin also reflects that the McGovern campaign was a time when young people got involved in the political process and tried to make a difference. I think it’s cool when people who ordinarily aren’t involved in the political process become involved. I think this when I consider the McGovern campaign, and also when I consider how a number of fundamentalist Christians first entered politics with the Goldwater campaign, the Moral Majority, and local educational controversies. They learned that (to echo C.J. Cregg on The West Wing) the people who have a say are the ones who show up, and that, if they’re discontent about society, they should get involved and try to make a difference.
I actually bought a book by McGovern not long ago. It was called The Essential America, and it’s about liberalism in the American tradition. When looking for a McGovern book to read, I learned that McGovern had an alcoholic daughter who died, and he wrote a book entitled Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism. It was sad to learn that he had experienced that kind of pain. More recently, I read Cal Thomas’ interview with McGovern in the 1999 book, Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America, in which McGovern thoughtfully reflects on the errors of the religious right and the religious left, the role of religion in politics, his own errors in the 1972 election (i.e., he let Nixon define him), and his personal faith. My post on this will appear next month. Stay tuned!
R.I.P., George McGovern.