George McGovern, 1922-2012
Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
When pushed for direct comment, he would mouth the platitudes of his political class and time. “Reproductive choice”—he wouldn’t say the word abortion—is the fundamental civil rights battle of modern America. Poverty derives from racism and the failure of government to combat it. The root causes of war are the defense industry and power-mad politicians. Yadda, yadda. The blather and the boilerplate. He just didn’t seem much interested (although it may have been only that he wasn’t going to bother for someone as uninterested, or uninteresting, as me).
But what he wanted to talk about was South Dakota and the people he had known there. He remembered my Great-uncle Joe—the man from whom, by a margin of 597 votes, he first won his Senate seat. (Stole the seat, my grandmother would have snarled, and given the doubtful voting returns out of Ellsworth Air Force Base—and the Democrats’ ugly rumor-mongering about Joe’s drinking —I couldn’t contradict her.)
The son of a preacher and something of a preacher himself, he remembered the Methodist circuit riders, the heroes of his denomination, who filled in at churches across the West. He recalled with amazing fondness and respect both the stern Mennonite farm families, people of weight and seriousness, in the eastern half of the state, and the wild cowboys, as free and unattached as the clouds, in the western half.
If you listened to him speak about anything personal—or anything at all before 1968—you could easily spy the shapes moving beneath the surface, like those silver fish in Rapid Creek, always just beyond the hook: A lot of libertarianism. A little nostalgia. A dose of that old-fashioned, noble-working-man kind of populism. Some -serious religion. He could sound, in fact, a lot like a Republican. But then the subject would shift, and he’d rise back up to the political present. Yadda, yadda. The blather and the boilerplate.
And that’s the lasting puzzle of George McGovern, isn’t it? The irreconcilability that still had found no solution when he died on October 21, at age 90, in a Sioux Falls hospice.
It’s a curious thing, but from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter the Democratic party has often cast up what today would be seen as fairly reactionary figures—liberalism overseen and shepherded for more than 30 years by figures who each had something of a conservative streak.
Adlai Stevenson, for instance, was nearly as much of a prig as Eleanor Roosevelt, with skirts almost as clean. His distant cousin Alben Barkley may have ended up as Truman’s vice president, but he began his long political career as an ardent supporter of Prohibition. John F. Kennedy—not much of either a prig or a Prohibitionist—clearly saw himself as a cold warrior. Hubert Humphrey first came to national attention as the anti-Communist mayor of Minneapolis: the man who had purged the radicals from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party’s rolls.
Even George McGovern was . . . Yes, well, what was McGovern? The Prairie Populist who lost the popular vote so badly he couldn’t get even his own state to vote for him in a national election. The antiwar figure who won the Distinguished Flying Cross and piloted 35 bomber missions during the Second World War. A gentle man, a genuine believer, who led the Food for Peace program and went on to run some of the most vicious campaigns his home state has ever seen. A brilliant political strategist—his capture of the Democratic presidential nomination was a masterwork—who ran a general-election campaign notable mostly for its utter incompetence.
Lost in the shadows of Watergate, the bizarre details of that 1972 battle against Nixon are hard to remember. Still, we shouldn’t let go of the fact that a political campaign as clueless as McGovern’s has rarely visited America. “I wanted to run for president in the worst way,” he would later quip, “and I sure did.”
Being labeled the candidate of the loony left was only the beginning of McGovern’s problems in the general election, and his replacing of Thomas Eagleton with Sargent Shriver as his vice-presidential running mate, three weeks after the convention, only one among many missteps. “This man’s ideas aren’t liberal,” the AFL-CIO’s George Meany complained. “This man’s ideas are crazy.” And as Steven Hayward notes in The Age of Reagan, big labor went on to sit out the fall campaign—the only time it declined to rally support for a Democratic nominee.