George McGovern, 1922-2012

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I am old enough, however, to remember Newt Gingrich’s use of that phrase in the mid-1990s, and even then it was risibly out of date.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.”)

10 thoughts on “George McGovern, 1922-2012

  1. As someone who cast her first presidential ballot for McGovern, this made me very sad. And it struck me that he didn’t make money out of politics: he did what he thought was important. The part that struck me the most (and still true) was

    National security includes schools for our children as well as silos for our missiles.//
    It includes the health of our families as much as the size of our bombs, the safety of our streets, and the condition of our cities, and not just the engines of war.

    I think he represents an older world of politics, where you didn’t try to make gazillions of dollars from your political connections.


  2. Ah, yes, we called it the ’60s, and no, they didn’t end until 1973-4, and what the hell was wrong with that?!? Staying up all night was just what you did in those days. He was also a SLAC history professor as I recall. John Gunther, in a book-of-the-month-club tome called _Inside the USA_, which featured a chapter on all 48 states (when he wrote it in the 1950s) described South Dakota as one of the most conservative states in America, while North Dakota was, paradoxically, by contrast almost a bolshevik republic. (If youse don’t like “nik,” don’t even bother with “vik”). I believe he attributed the latter to some Scandinavian inheritance, as opposed to the more Germanic background of S.D. Who knows if he was right, his methodology was a little impressionistic, but I was impressed as a toddler. Anyway, if we can relegate ’72 to “the past,” I’m inclinable to think that the past just may have been more virtuous than the present. But maybe not.

    In ’68, I hitchhiked damn nearly past your doorstep, Historiann, to knock on doors, pass out leaflets, and “canvas” for McGovern’s “Minnesota Twin” ideological but not temperamental soulmate, Eugene McCarthy, in northeastern Indiana. This morning, indisposed, I turned away a couple of Obama kidz by shouting through the door “I’m voting for him but I can’t talk now, good luck…” Where’s the virtu in that, I wonder?


  3. Sad news. For anyone not that familiar with George McGovern who wants to know more (without digging into Vietnam or the 1972 election), I recommend “Terry.” A moving memoir.


  4. I’m too much to remember much about him, but I do remember “don’t blame me; I’m from Massachusetts.”

    From what I’m hearing now, he sounds like an honorable man whose ideas I could support, then or now.


  5. My favorite candidate. I was too young to vote, but I did walk a precinct for George. This was in my junior year of high school which was quite interesting since we got the Watergate hearings next. Hmmm, what else … when I had started that high school, in 1970, I knew it was a grownup place to be because it had draft counseling.


  6. One of the things that I remember about the 1972 campaign had nothing directly to do with McGovern. Rather, early on, it was a Democratic scramble for the nomination, and one candidate was Hubert Humphrey, seeking to recoup from the debacle of 1968. Before Vietnam splintered everything, McGovern, Humphrey, McCarthy, and others were part of the same Upper Midwest progressive protestant (well, McCarthy was an ascetic Catholic) block in the Democratic Party. Anyway, Humphrey came to Penn for a major speech, which marked the first prominent appearance of the local radical group called “Move,” which would go on to a horrifying prominence between c. 1978 and 1985. Nobody that I knew had heard of them, but they jumped up in the back of the auditorium to heckle Humphrey mercilessly, to the consternation of most of the audience, which was pretty far to the left of Humphrey but much attached to the niceties of polite discourse. The word in the hall from anyone who claimed to know what was going on was that Move was a group that would more aggressively attack liberals than conservatives, because liberals were (still at that time) presumably more responsible for the hegemonic conditions that then prevailed in society, and because they would be more distraught over the style of the politics of spectacle than nutcase conservatives. After that evening, Move more or less receded from public consciousness until the later 1970s, or that’s what I’m remembering anyway. Humphrey, who as a 30 year old mayor of Minneapolis, had made the legendary “Civil Rights Plank” speech that split the 1948 Democratic National Convention, in an iconic auditorium barely two blocks from where the 1972 debacle went down.


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