I only really spent time with him once. Well, no, that isn’t entirely true. I also met him briefly when I was a child, trying to fish for rainbow trout one summer morning in the Black Hills. He was a stranger, coming down the stream in hip-waders, green rubber overalls, but he stopped to help unsnarl my line from the dark pines that overhang Rapid Creek.
I remember liking him—a pleasant, soft-spoken man—and we walked together back toward the cabins for lunch. I thought, in fact, he must be a professional fisherman, with his fancy rod and his willow-woven creel, and we talked about fly-fishing on narrow streams (small movements, he told me: Use the wrist, not the arm) as the pale dust of the dirt road trailed up behind us.
Then my grandmother called out from the cabin door, thanking him curtly and hauling me inside. “We don’t talk to that man,” she explained, stiff and unhappy. And we didn’t talk to him, apparently, because he was George McGovern. And because political memories are long and bitter in a small state like South Dakota. And because George McGovern, the prairie Democrat in the U.S. Senate, had somehow progressed with enormous speed from opposing the Vietnam war to representing “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid”—had somehow gone from holding a reasonable if unusual position for a plains senator to being the figurehead for all the turmoil and agitation of the nation.
It was as though he had set up a snow fence, one of those droopy, temporary things of wooden slats and wire, across a narrow patch of prairie. And every tumbleweed and piece of litter, every stray political cause and unattached reason for social unhappiness, came piling against it—driven by the strange eddies of those times, till the detritus towered above the fence, out on the empty plains.
A political analyst might say, of McGovern’s legacy, that the political winds of America would quickly blow the whole thing over, scattering its pieces to kingdom come. The man lost the 1972 presidential election, after all, in one of the greatest landslides in history: 17 electoral votes to Nixon’s 520.
We shouldn’t forget, however, that he won the Democratic nomination that year by, in essence, handing the party over forever to representatives of all those drifting causes—interest groups, we call them now—ripping it away from the city bosses, blue-collar Catholics, labor leaders, and Southern senators who had treated it as their private reserve since Franklin Roosevelt’s time. And that new-formed party of McGovern’s didn’t go away. Not by a long shot. In the years since he sat back to watch the circus of the 1968 Democratic convention and figured out how he would ride the protesters to the next cycle’s nomination, the party he created has held the presidency 16 out of 44 years. Not great, certainly, but hardly proof of eternal repudiation.
Over that same time, for that matter, the Democrats have controlled the House for 30 years and the Senate for 28: not Roosevelt’s sort of dominance, but not peanuts, either. In truth, the Democrats have won just often enough since McGovern that they have not had to redefine themselves in any fundamental way. Oh, the three Democratic presidents after 1972—Carter, Clinton, and Obama—all campaigned in certain ways against their McGovernite origins, representing themselves as outsiders and triangulators and healers of national division. But whether or not they meant it, their administrations rapidly silted up with the usual run of activists, community organizers, racial analysts, feminists, and class-action lawyers.
With Democrats, in other words: true-believing members of the party that still resides where George McGovern left it in 1972. The founder and definer of that institution of the permanent revolution, McGovern remains more consequential in American political history than Woodrow Wilson or maybe even Barry Goldwater. He belongs in the elite class of politicians that includes, in this country, the likes of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt.
Not that he wanted to talk about it when, as an adult, I met him again. The encounter was unplanned. I happened to run into him at a Washington restaurant, where we both were about to sit by ourselves. But we spent an hour and a half talking—and talking and talking: among the most enjoyable lunches I’ve ever known. Enjoyable enough, anyway, that we visited again a time or two before the relationship drifted away.
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.
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.