Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern: war hero fought to end a war

McGovern's greatest achievement was bridging the gulf between generations.

It is with deep regret that I report that George McGovern has died. A Democratic Senator from South Dakota, McGovern was his party’s nominee for president in 1972. His campaign was called The Children’s Crusade because it mobilised thousands of students against the war in Vietnam and the morally ambiguous presidency of Richard Nixon. The scale of McGovern’s ambition and idealism were matched by the scale of his defeat – winning just one state, his campaign showed the limits of American liberalism. Moderate Democrats blamed McGovern’s radicalism and the McGovernites blamed Nixon’s dirty tricks. But the sad truth is that a man like George was probably just too decent to win the presidency of the United States. Nobody has yet.

Let me correct some myths about George McGovern. He was no peacenik; during World War II he flew in bombing missions across Europe and was decorated for his bravery. Nor was he another rich liberal like the Kennedys; his parents were rural Republicans in South Dakota and his father was a Methodist minister. It wasn’t Mill or Rawls that shaped his view of life but the experience of poverty during the Great Depression and the vision of Hell that he saw over the cities that he bombed. After the war, McGovern helped build the South Dakota Democratic Party out of nothing, won a seat in Congress and then a seat in the Senate. He voted for the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that authorized escalation of US involvement in Vietnam – and soon regretted it. By 1965 he was an acknowledged dove and in 1968 he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination on a peace ticket. His second candidacy, in 1972, exploited the creation of a new nominating system based on caucuses and primaries. Packing caucuses with anti-war liberals, he was able to win the nomination with a mix of idealism and canny manipulation. McGovern was no fool.

In fact, everything McGovern advocated was shaped by a yearning for a simpler, older time when the government was smaller and the citizen was bigger. His opposition to military spending marked him out as a tax cutter and a fiscal hawk and his campaign was as critical of the Democratic Party machine as it was Nixon – for good reason. It was a Democratic president who put America in Vietnam, and McGovern regarded the conflict as a stain on the country’s character. Every war is a tragedy, but Vietnam was reprehensible. McGovern didn’t just feel anger about it; I think he felt guilt. He cut an ad in which he visited a veteran’s hospital, and what is remarkable about the film is the unedited anger of the boys he met. These kids were furious – with the Generals, with the President, but also perhaps with George. He represented a generation of failed leadership, of the grey men in Washington who sent the young to fight an unwinnable war on their behalf. McGovern’s greatest accomplishment was to earn the trust of boys like these – showing that a bridge between generations could be built and offering hope for progress and healing. Critics sneered that McGovern's youthful campaign was staffed by "the beautiful people." But there's no escaping the beauty of his humility.

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