George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee for President, died this morning in his home state of South Dakota. The New York Times obit included this description of the 1972 Democratic convention:
The nominating convention in Miami was a disastrous start to the general election campaign. There were divisive platform battles over Vietnam, abortion, welfare and court-ordered busing to end racial discrimination. The eventual platform was probably the most liberal one ever adopted by a major party in the United States. It advocated an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for war resisters, the abolition of the draft, a guaranteed job for all Americans and a guaranteed family income well above the poverty line.
Several prominent Democrats declined Mr. McGovern’s offer to be his running mate before he finally chose Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri.
Mr. McGovern’s organization was so disorganized that by the time he went to the convention rostrum for his acceptance speech, it was nearly 3 a.m. He delivered perhaps the best speech of his life. “We reject the view of those who say, ‘America, love it or leave it,’ ” he declared. “We reply, ‘Let us change it so we can love it more.’ ”
The delegates loved it, but most television viewers had long since gone to bed.
I have never heard or read his speech, but that line really struck me. As I was filling out my mail-in ballot last week, a thought occurred to me that was strikingly similar to McGovern’s sentiments: Conservatives are people who are convinced that the past was more virtuous than the present, whereas liberals are people who are convinced that the present is more virtuous than the past, and that the future can be more virtuous still.
That’s me, a counter-cultural McGovernik, in Newt Gingrich’s memorable phrase! I am too young to remember George McGovern as anything other than a friendly, grandfatherly occasional presence on C-SPAN. I am old enough, however, to remember Newt Gingrich’s use of that phrase in the mid-1990s, and even then it was risibly out of date. Who under the age of 60 is intimidated by having the suffix -nik applied to them? Why not just burst into another round of “Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen” while you’re at it, old timer? (Hint: it’s sung to the tune of “Old Dan Tucker.”)