Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern

The death of former US Senator George S. McGovern at age 90 makes me think of the 1972 US presidential election, as it’s done for many others. However, unlike many other people I know personally, I wasn’t on his side back then. That eventually changed.

The US presidential election of 1972 isn’t the first that I can remember, but it is the first I participated in by wearing political campaign buttons. I was 13. In those days, buttons were given away for free, and I wore a lot—all of them for Republicans. I distinctly remember the buttons with way too much text: “President Nixon. Now more than ever.” It was accompanied by a button with the punchier, “Nixon Now” (a slogan, I later learned, that was used in Nixon’s losing 1960 campaign). I wore both buttons.

I remember watching McGovern campaign and disliking him intensely. Coming from a Republican family, and living in a mostly Republican area, I quite frankly had no reason to give McGovern a fair go—I simply didn’t know any differently. So, when McGovern lost in a huge landslide, I was pleased. Less than two years later, of course, we watched Nixon resign in disgrace.

Many of McGovern’s obituaries have noted that in the decades after that defeat, he remained true to his ideals even when the Democratic Party wanted him to just go away, and to pretend that 1972 never happened. It’s a typical Democratic response: Something goes wrong and they run a mile in the opposite direction.

McGovern’s 1972 campaign was a disaster. The debacle over picking then-Missouri US Senator Thomas Eagleton, only to drop him when it was revealed he’d had electric shock therapy as treatment for depression, made McGovern look fickle and unable to properly vet his running mate. Picking the "little-known" Sargent Shriver (who in my area was known only as “part of the Kennedy family”) as the replacement running mate—after five Democrats turned him down—didn’t help.

But McGovern represented something special: What it meant to be a liberal Democrat. As AP reporter Walter R. Mears, who covered McGovern in 1972 and in the Senate, wrote today, “McGovern was a partisan without the poison that increasingly infected American politics.” He was of that era in which it was still possible for Democrats and Republicans to not only work together—barely imaginable nowadays—but also to actually compromise, something that’s now impossible.

McGovern was what we used to call a statesman—idealistic, willing to put partisan needs aside even while trying to remain true to an ideology. He was not a slash-and-burn politician, as most modern ones are, particularly on the right. That’s why I say McGovern was statesman, and why we can’t use that word for modern politicians.

I think that, in a nutshell, is why I came to respect McGovern and to identify with his politics. He wasn’t perfect, and he was a pretty lousy politician—if by that you mean the manipulative, scheming, self-serving stuffed shirts we now have in Congress. Clearly not such a bad thing to not be one of them.

The death of George McGovern is a loss. But the tragedy is that we have so few like him anymore.

The photo of McGovern accompanying this post was taken in 1972 and is from the Library of Congress. It has no known usage restrictions.


Update: Also check out the blog posts on McGovern from my friends Jason and Roger, who also share personal recollections.


Roger Owen Green said...

Nice reflection. Have to write mine when I get the chance.

Don't agree with the reference to the "little-known Sargent Shriver," though. Not only was he a Kennedy in-law, married to Eunice, but he was the first head of the Peace Corps. I was a political junkie by '64, and probably an outlier for my age, but I sure knew who he was.

Of course, you were very young in the early '60's...

Arthur Schenck said...

You're right that as a kid I was probably entirely unaware of the Peace Corps—I may have heard the name, but had no idea, really, what it was. The reference to Shriver being "little known" was more about how he was viewed in my largely Republican environment. I know that in 1972, I had no idea who he was.

Roger Owen Green said...

Well, mine will post tomorrow.

I was interested in your postscript. Virtually all of my graphics that aren't my own, and aren't graphics for the movie or whatever, I get from govt sources. I don't even bother to mention, because it's not copyrightable in the US. Then it occurred to me that YOU ARE IN NEW ZEALAND (I DID know that, really) and that YOUR use may be restricted in a way mine is not. Hmmm...

Arthur Schenck said...

You're right, and our "fair dealing" rights are much weaker than the US' "fair use" rights, but it's only part of the story.

Because of my recent YouTube experience, I'm being extra cautious about listing image source and any relevant usage rights. However, it's also in keeping with the spirit of Creative Commons licensing.

The Creative Commons license covering this blog allows for re-use with attribution, so I thought I'd include attribution even of non-Creative Commons images so that others can go to the original source to get the image (in this case, for example, the photo is cropped). I certainly don't want to imply authorship or ownership of something that's not mine, but I also want to make it easier for others to obtain images to work with.

To be honest, it's more about facilitating cooperation and others' creative endeavours than it's a defensive, pre-emptive assertion of my right to use an image.