It is an irony of history that we can trace the roots of modern political cynicism to George S. McGovern, not to Richard M. Nixon.
It took conservatives only two election cycles to recover from the craven venality of President Nixon. Liberals have never gotten over the idealism of Senator McGovern.
In facile obituaries this week, the South Dakota Democrat is being remembered as a political Don Quixote, tilting in vain at populist windmills, his legacy redeemed only by his heroic service as a bomber pilot in World War II. The term “McGovernite” will forever stand for a “hopelessly far left follower of lost liberal causes,” Brian Williams of NBC decreed.
That is not how most of us felt when we cast our first presidential ballot for Senator McGovern in 1972 and that is not how history will judge him. He was right about Vietnam, right about the disastrous consequences of income inequality and right about the man whose unprecedented resignation from the presidency in 1974 looms larger than his landslide victory over McGovern two years earlier.
McGovern was the last presidential candidate unafraid to prescribe bold action in the face of seemingly overwhelming social problems. He suffered the consequences for his unwillingness to trim and to pander, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia for the Democrats that year. But we have suffered, too, left with a timid political discourse that skirts rather than confronts the contentious issues that divide us, left with Democratic politicians so cowed by conservatives that they have consigned the word “liberal” to the dustbin, replacing it with the more nebulous “progressive” in hopes of giving less offense to the mushy middle where, we are told, elections are won or lost.
Who in the U.S. Senate now would do as he did then, excoriating his colleagues when they rejected a measure he proposed with Senator Mark O. Hatfield, a moderate Republican from Oregon, to end the war in Vietnam by Dec. 31, 1971. “Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood,” McGovern railed.
Nixon, the unindicted co-conspirator of the Watergate scandal went on to become a sought after elder statesman, an informal advisor even to President Bill Clinton, himself a creature of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that recast McGovern’s political courage as hopeless naïveté. McGovern just went on, as unheeded when he denounced the preemptive war in Iraq as he was when he demanded an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. He was right about that, too.
In the wake of McGovern’s loss in 1972, Democrats ran far and fast from the vision of a fairer, more just America that McGovern and his running mate R. Sargent Shriver Jr. articulated on the campaign trail. They have never looked back.
So, this presidential election cycle, instead of proposing measures to combat poverty and rising inequality, President Barack Obama is focusing on middle class tax cuts. Instead of embracing gun control in the wake of mass shootings — the latest one only this week at a spa in Wisconsin — the Democratic incumbent is reassuring voters of his commitment to the Second Amendment. Instead of denouncing his Republican opponent’s callous disparagement of welfare recipients, he is reminding us that his administration has toughened work requirements for those who need public assistance.
“During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I’ve been labeled a ‘bleeding-heart liberal.’ It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it,” McGovern wrote last year. “My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society’s ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction ‘Love the neighbor as thyself.’”
There’s a “hopelessly far left … lost liberal cause” for you.
- George McGovern, An Improbable Icon Of Anti-War Movement (NPR)
- The Legacy Of George McGovern, Former Senator And Presidential Candidate (Here & Now)
- Listen: George McGovern’s Impact On Mass. Politics (WBUR’s Morning Edition)