October 23, 2012
George Will recorded the irony that George McGovern, who passed away over the weekend at a ripe old 90 years, seems to have had his foreign policy vision vindicated after forty years in the political wilderness.
Will: The fact that this debate occurred in the immediate aftermath of the death of George McGovern underscores a remarkable reversal in presidential politics for both parties. That is 40 years ago tonight, George McGovern was running on the slogan ‘come home America.’ He then lost 49 states.?Forty years on ‘come home America’ is pretty much the foreign policy of an American plurality, and perhaps an American majority, as the president seemed to understand as he repeated three times, by my account, said we have to get back to nation-building here at home.”
Im not so sure about that. Sen. McGoverns foreign policy vision actually blamedAmericafor the war inSoutheast Asia. The arrival of thousands of Vietnamese boat people on our shores in the aftermath of liberal Democrats like McGovern cutting off all aid to the struggling nations of that region was quietly passed over in debate commentary.
I had the great joy of having a son of that boatlift in my class of interns in 2008. Young Dan Bui corrected me when I pointed out the Scripture quote atop a majestic column in the Jefferson Room at the Library of Congress: The Heavens declare the Glory of God; the Firmament Showeth His Handiwork, reads the golden inscription. Thats from the Psalms, I think, I told my students. Yes, piped up Dan Bui, Pslams 19:1. I was happy to be so corrected.
George McGovern had a huge impact on my life. I was a young candidate for the New York State Assembly in 1972. McGoverns liberal forces had taken over my party. The McGovern Rules enabled liberal anti-war activists to seize control of the Democratic Party, even at the local level. I was known not to be a McGovern supporter, but a more conservative Democrat. Conservative inNew York in those days was not a nice word.
Taxes and education were the big issues then for state legislative candidates, but the abortion issue kept intruding. In the last year before the Supreme Court overturned fifty states abortion laws—laws that were invariably to be found within the homicide code—the abortion question was a troubling issue that candidates had to grapple with.
After pondering the matter for weeks, I came out against liberal abortion. This was hard to do since my campaign workers—with one exception—and even some members of my family strongly disagreed with me.
McGoverns forces were derided even by fellow Democrats. Their hostile slogan for the McGovern movement was Abortion, Amnesty (for Vietnam draft evaders fleeing to Canada) and Acid (a snide reference to liberals supposed fondness for illegal drugs.) I was opposed to all those things, but I loyally stayed with my party.
McGoverns commitment to power to the people went to ridiculous extremes. His nominating convention in Miami actually allowed delegates to make looney announcements like: Wisconsin casts 235.314 delegate votes for…
Such childish antics pushed McGoverns acceptance speech past 2 am in the Eastern time zone. He would afterward joke that his speech was a big hit in Guam. But such gross incompetence was no laughing matter at the time.
Sen. McGovern first tapped Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton (D) as his running mate. And he said he backed the moderate, pro-labor, pro-life Catholic 1000% As soon as stories leaked out that the Missourian had undergone electro-shock therapy for depression, however, McGovern succumbed to party pressure and forced Eagleton off the ticket.
Ironically, the very liberal party doyens who constantly preached to each other the benefits of psychotherapy demanded Eagleton walk the plank. In Suffolk County, New York, local Democratic leader Larry Delaney took a different view. Tall, balding, forever chewing a cigar and looking sadly at the mad world over half glasses, Larry Delaney was the picture of the kind of professional politico whom the Magoos—as party regulars called the McGovernites—were pushing out.
Delaney knew it was disastrous to tell the nation that in your first decision as a would-be President of the United States you had, er, goofed up. They dropped the wrong nut from the ticket, Larry would say.
My own relations with the Magoos were uneasy. I tried not to antagonize these liberal zealots. When I went to a scheduled meeting at the local McGovern headquarters in May, I was relieved to find it closed. On the door, a hand-lettered sign: Weve gone to protest Nixons insane escalation of the war. Actually, President Nixons mining of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam seemed a good idea to most Americans. More than sixty percent backed Nixons move.
One of the young Harvards volunteering for McGovern came to visit my campaign headquarters. Whats that thing doing up there, he demanded. He was referring to the American flag we prominently displayed in my Morrison-for-Assembly campaign office.
It was probably not wise of me, but I couldnt resist shooting back: Its an American flag. I am running for office in the United States. Would you have preferred a Vietcong flag?
Meanwhile, local Democrats were deeply split. I remember going up on the porch of the home of five registered Democrats. The older man of the house came out to confront me. Are you running with McGovern, he asked accusingly.
I could not deny it. He chased me off the porch with a pitchfork. And they say McGovern invented grassroots politics!
When Sen. Ted Kennedy announced he would come to Long Island to campaign with George McGovern, there was near panic among the Democratic candidates. Few wanted to be seen standing on the same platform.
I was delighted I had a good excuse: I had committed to do voter registration with the NAACP. But local pols were amazed that Larry Delaney said, yes, hed go to the rally and stand with Kennedy and McGovern. Taking his chewed cigar from his lips, Delaney said: I missed Jesus and Lazarus, I gotta see if they can still raise the dead.
Late in the campaign, there was excitement as one of the Magoos came rushing into my campaign office. McGovern is leading in New York, he exclaimed. The state, I asked incredulously. No, New York City, said the Magoo, the Daily News poll has McGovern leading Nixon, 52-48.
As patiently as I could, I explained to our young friend, another Harvard man, that a Democrat had to take 70% of New York City to have a hope of carrying New York States 45 Electoral Votes.
George McGovern went down to a crushing defeat in November, 1972. So did I. He would later tell Fritz Mondale—who also lost 49 states, in 1984, about the experience of being so rejected. How long does it take to get over it, Fritz asked. Ill call you when I do, McGovern said.
Ive long since gotten over my defeat. Since that fateful November, I have come to faith in Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I have been happily married. I have been blessed with a loving family, children and grandchildren. I have had an abundant life.
So I can thank Sen. McGovern for dragging me down with him. I supported little or nothing of what he stood for in 1972, least of all his embrace of abortion. But thanks to him, I never had to stand on the platform with Hillary!
The rest of George McGoverns story is powerfully told by Stephen Ambrose in his best-selling book, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany. McGovern was a true hero and patriot in World War II. The George McGovern who emerges from these pages is a good man, a fundamentally decent American, one whose wartime record can make us all proud. Then, he understood that there is evil in the world and good men must resist it—without losing human sympathy. Its a moving tribute to an entire generation of World War II veterans now departing from us every day. May God rest these brave Americans.