The Magazine

Prairie Democrat

George McGovern, 1922-2012

Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

McGovern’s preconvention campaign, however, was one for the textbooks. Fifteen Democrats entered the nomination fray that year, although many of them were, in truth, boutique candidates, typically looking to push an agenda rather than win an election. George Wallace and Shirley Chisholm. Patsy Mink, of all people, and Walter Fauntroy. Sam Yorty. Even Scoop Jackson, ​representing the rump of liberal anti-Communists who had survived the Democrats’ changes after 1968. 

Wilbur Mills wanted to be a national candidate, but he came to the convention only as the favorite son holder of Arkansas’s votes. The former Republican John Lindsay and the former folk-hero Eugene McCarthy were both past their sell-by dates. Terry Sanford and Vance Hartke never went on sale. The candidates of the party’s establishment were the previous cycle’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees, Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie. And Humphrey, who’d won the 1968 nomination without directly entering a single primary, actually drew more total primary votes in 1972 than McGovern did.

What neither Humphrey nor Muskie realized, however, was that the establishment they represented was no longer the party’s actual establishment. McGovern had taken it away from them by overseeing reforms of the delegate-selection process. The McGovern Commission, as it was called​—​officially it had the nicely Stalinist title of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection​—​was appointed by Senator Fred Harris, the national chairman, to ensure that the protests at the 1968 convention were never repeated. But by forcing states to hold primaries, weakening state officials’ patronage power to name delegates, and demanding proportional representation for women, blacks, and “the young” (the 1968 protesters and, not coincidentally, the antiwar McGovern’s greatest supporters in 1972), the commission mandated exactly the nomination campaign McGovern was best situated to run.

The shortcomings of the result would be apparent before the convention itself was over. Tom Eagleton was chosen for vice president in what was reported to be only an hour, and news reports about his psychiatric shock treatments would soon cause his resignation. The convention itself dragged on and on​—​nuttier with each passing moment, till even Chairman Mao had gotten a nomination​—​and McGovern finally delivered his (very good) acceptance speech “Come Home, America!” at 3:00 a.m., to a television audience awake only in Guam.

In other words, McGovern constructed a machine he couldn’t control, and it ran him over. Still, the magnitude of what he achieved shouldn’t be dismissed. He established the coalition of “campus, ghetto, and suburb”​—​educated elites, minorities in the inner cities, and abortion-favoring upper-middle-class moms​—​that remains the party’s core. 

The sadly little-remembered Fred Dutton, author of the 1971 Changing Sources of Power: American Politics in the 1970s, deserves credit for the idea; through his work on the delegate commission he convinced key Democrats that the New Deal coalition could -jettison its more conservative elements​—​especially the Catholics and Southerners who were holding back the party’s liberalism​—​and still win elections. George McGovern, however, was the one who took the idea and tried to make it a reality​—​the reality that would eventually produce our current president. Barack Obama comes from the heart of the party that McGovern created. From rooms in the house that George built.

The question, of course, is how much of it all McGovern himself believed. For most other politicians, the simple answer would be that he cynically used his darting streaks of conservatism and his overall patina of liberalism for political gain, whenever either was convenient. But that doesn’t seem right for describing McGovern. Even his most furious detractors admitted he was always sincere about his positions. 

Sincere. It’s one of those words that occur again and again when the topic of McGovern comes up. The man was wonderfully, excruciatingly sincere. He was almost a masochist about it all​—​except, good sadist, he was equally determined to force recognition of that sincerity on everyone around him.

The trouble is figuring out exactly what he was so sincere about. After he lost his Senate seat to James Abdnor in the Reagan sweep of 1980, McGovern tried his hand at running a Connecticut motor inn. He ended up losing his entire investment, and in 1992 he took to the Wall Street Journal to describe how government regulations contributed to his failure: “I .  .  . wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience,” he wrote. “We intuitively know that to create job opportunities, we need entrepreneurs who will risk their capital against an expected payoff. Too often, however, public policy does not consider whether we are choking off those opportunities.”

Contemplating such lines from McGovern​—​his more recent opposition to union card-check elections deserves mention as well​—​some writers have suggested in recent days, as he slipped into the coma that would claim his life, that McGovern grew more conservative as he grew older: another easy kind of answer to the puzzle of the man. But that, too, won’t do. Many of those same impulses were present from his earliest days as a politician. He wasn’t insincere when he based his Senate campaigns on what would later be called Blue Dog Democratic principles​—​even while, back in Washington or out on the national campaign trail, he espoused a pretty undiluted liberalism.  

On December 12, 1994, McGovern’s daughter Teresa froze to death in a snowdrift outside a Wisconsin bar. His 1996 book about her, Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism, is astonishingly sad to read, as McGovern expresses his “regret over the ways in which my political career and personal ego demands deprived Terry and my other children of time, attention, direction.” Even while he recognizes that she spurned the family’s efforts to help, he spares himself very little: “I do not regret one single act of kindness, patience, or support that I gave to Terry. What I regret is her slowly developing death and the feeling that I could have done more to prevent it.”

As the reporter Mark Stricherz has pointed out, he was willing to examine even the effect on her when the family doctor sent her out of state to have an abortion at age 15: “An important part of Terry was devastated by the abortion. Her innocence, her fun-loving nature, and her self-confidence were all deeply shaken, first by an unpleasant sexual experience and then by a pregnancy that she feared and yet did not want to terminate. .  .  . I never expressed anger, nor did I ever hint at any concern about possible political consequences. But Terry felt shamed and reduced by this episode.”

Compare all that to his 2011 book, What It Means to Be a Democrat​—​his victory lap when, as he insists, the election of President Obama brought about at last the triumph of the political coalition he assembled in 1972. He boasts how he brought into the party “millions of Americans who felt they were outsiders to the political decision-making process.” He claims paid family and medical leave, the stimulus, and Obamacare as his legacy. He even praises legalized abortion as an unmitigated good, with no look back at the personal experience he describes so painfully in Terry.

I’ve always been tempted to think that the one real thing was his opposition to the Vietnam war, a position he took in 1965 when it was a dangerous and lonely place for a politician to be. All the rest he just adopted as it was thrown up by the wave he rode to the 1972 nomination.

Friends and foes alike, however, testify that he truly believed all the blather and boilerplate, and a better explanation might be something akin to the Doctrine of Double Truth, against which Thomas Aquinas and the other medieval Aristotelians so bitterly inveighed. Like the mutual incoherence of poetry and physics, there were private truths for George McGovern and there were public truths​—​and they did not contradict each other because they could not contradict each other. They operated in noncontiguous realms. They shared no common ground over which they might squabble, for they lived in worlds that did not touch​—​both held firmly, sincerely, in the different hemispheres of McGovern’s mind, with a wall between them so high that he never climbed up to look beyond it. 

Ah, well. May he rest in peace, gathered home now to his Methodist fathers. So many remembrances in recent days have spoken of love for the man, and he had that, as well: an indefinable air of lovability. If I had gotten to know him better and weren’t burdened with the weight of old South Dakota history, I might have learned to love him, too. But I would never have followed him, for he had nowhere to lead, really: no coherent worldview to teach. 

To visit him in the public spaces of his mind, if you were a Democrat, was to nod impatiently while Grandpa mouthed platitudes about what you already knew​—​or, if you were a Republican, to run away as fast as you could to vote for Richard Nixon or Jim Abdnor, anybody but George McGovern. To visit him in the private spaces, however, was to feel something else. Gratitude, I think, that you were allowed to walk down a dusty country road with such a man, talking about fishing.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the author of The Christmas Plains.


Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers