In case you haven’t heard, former South Dakota Senator and 1972 Democratic Party candidate for President, George McGovern is nearing the end of his life. The 90-year old military veteran and war dove has had a myriad of health problems over the past year and our condolences go to his family right now.
I should preface this by stating that I wasn’t alive for McGovern’s heyday. My only direct memories of George McGovern is always hearing my Mom say that he was the first person she was eligible to vote for. When you read into McGovern’s history and see his words on the Vietnam War as it was happening, you can’t help but see what made McGovern a perfect selection for the political climate of 1972. His campaign was tarred however by the Thomas Eagleston electroshock controversy but his legacy will live on.
Yet how do we memorialize someone of McGovern’s stature? He certainly deserves his fair share of accolades, but how does his legacy fit in today’s day and age?
Some people think Ted Kennedy was the father of modern-day American liberalism and that is certainly a healthy argument. The “liberal lion” was the last of an iconic political dynasty and was essentially the face of the Democratic Party from the late-60s until the rise of Bill Clinton.
But if Ted Kennedy was the face of the Democratic Party, George McGovern was the blood and soul of it.
George McGovern represented the ideal liberal canddiate and his messages would still ring true today. He, with the help of Gary Hart, started a quixotic bid for the Presidency that developed into a grassroot movement that surprisingly got him all the way to the nomination. In his acceptance speech, McGovern had this to say:
We are entering a new period of important and hopeful change in America, a period comparable to those eras that unleashed such remarkable ferment in the period of Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt. Let the opposition collect their $10 million in secret money from the privileged few and let us find one million ordinary Americans who will contribute $25 each to this campaign, a Million Member Club with members who will not expect special favors for themselves but a better land for us all. In the literature and music of our children we are told, to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. And for America, the time has come at last. This is the time for truth, not falsehood. In a Democratic nation, no one likes to say that his inspiration came from secret arrangements by closed doors, but in the sense that is how my candidacy began. I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors. I want those doors opened and I want that war closed. And I make these pledges above all others: the doors of government will be opened, and that war will be closed.
McGovern’s comments rang loud in 1972 as he’s part of the reason why we have caucuses and primaries to decide our nominations as opposed to backroom deals by party bigwigs. Yes, the system isn’t perfect but since the ’72 fight you can’t argue that it is not more inclusive than it has been before. So you can thank McGovern for those election reforms, or at least the popularization of them.
But also his comments could also be synonymous with the post-Citizens United world. McGovern was a true populist, from the Midwest, who was a servant of the people and not big business or party leadership.
Yet McGovern’s most famous and endearing stance that saw him rise to the forefront was his complete opposition to the Vietnam War. In a time where anti-war protestors were regularly sparring with the police, which clearly represented the political establishment, McGovern ran the risk of alienating the so-called “Silent Majority” of people who did not want to concede defeat at the hands of the Viet Cong.
In conjunction with bill co-sponsor Mark Hatfield, McGovern fought for an amendment to end the war. McGovern, in an emotional speech on the Senate floor, stated that (yes, I cited Wikipedia):
Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land — young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.
There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
McGovern not only fought for the people in America but for those serving their country in a war that should not have been fought. McGovern, who spent time in the military (a fact that was revealed later in life), may not have been a pacifist nor a dove; but he believed in justice. He believed that Vietnam was wrong and that the nation didn’t fight hard enough for the troops that fought so hard for them.
McGovern’s legacy might be mixed after his trouncing at the hands of Richard Nixon but he’ll long be remembered as a man who fought for the people and his country, that fought for inclusion and most importantly; wanted to give a voice for those who remained unheard.
South Dakota might not be thought of as a liberal hot spot but George McGovern proved that ideology wasn’t as important as fighting for the people you represent. For his time in the Senate, before losing in 1980, McGovern beat the odds time and time again. His passion for people, not necessarily power, for veterans (thought not exclusively peace) and for equality are all pedestals for modern-day liberalism.
The world was a better place because of George McGovern and it’ll be hard to replace him. But his legacy should live on.
Thank you, Senator.