The bumper sticker simply said, “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.” If you had your head in a bucket for a year or so, you didn’t get the joke. In 1972, running against incumbent President Richard M. Nixon, South Dakota Senator George McGovern carried only the state of Massachusetts, the most lopsided election in modern history, 520 electoral votes to 17. Within a year, Nixon’s vice-president Spiro Agnew resigned under suspicion of corruption and a new word had entered the American vocabulary – Watergate.
It was a disastrous campaign for Democrats. The frontrunner in the primaries had been Senator Ed Muskie of Maine. He became the target of Republican dirty tricks. He was accused of using a disparaging name for French Canadians. His wife was accused of being a foul-mouthed drunk. While defending his wife during a snowfall, he appeared to be crying. McGovern won the subsequent primaries.
McGovern chose Missouri Senator Thomas Eggleton as his running mate. When it was “revealed” that Eggleton had undergone treatment for depression he withdrew from the race and Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver (later the father-in-law of Arnold the Governator) replaced him. 1972 is the election we can point at and say “this is the beginning of the corruption of the Republican Party.” This was where the underhanded, dirty, subversive election tactics of the modern Republican Party started gelling into what they are today. Senator Muskie’s wife was accused of being a foul-mouthed drunk? So is Joe Biden.
It was the first presidential election I voted in. It’s true, you never forget your first. Congress had proposed the 26th Amendment on March 23, 1971, and it was ratified in July, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. I had only been 20 in 1968, so my first presidential vote went to George McGovern, not 1968′s incumbent vice-president Hubert Humphry. I have never regretted that “wasted” vote. George McGovern was what we all say we want in a politician – an honest man.
Maybe that’s why he wasn’t a nationally successful politician. McGovern spoke plainly and honestly, not parsing his words or obfuscating his beliefs. You knew exactly where McGovern stood on everything, and that was squarely in the liberal arena.
McGovern was a World War II bomber pilot, and held a doctorate in history. He served as one of North Dakota’s Representatives from 1957 to 1961, and then as one of their Senators from 1963 to 1981.
George McGovern didn’t embrace the anti-war movement when it became clear how many young people opposed it. He led the opposition. He gave the first-ever Senate speech against the War in Vietnam in 1963. He opposed the American policy towards Cuba, saying that it was an obsession, “our Castro fixation,” and not valid foreign policy. His doctorate in history gave him a very different perspective on the world from most politicians.
He championed labor unions and civil rights and farmers and Native American rights. George McGovern was the epitome of the Northern Liberal – which, in the late 1950s was an utterly, mind-blowingly amazing thing. He was at the vanguard of the political party pivot that reshaped America’s political landscape in the 1960s.
The base of the pre-1963 Democratic Party was the Deep South, and yes, it was the party of the KKK, Jim Crow, union-suppression, you-name-it-suppression. Then, Lyndon Johnson, a Southern Democrat, rammed the Civil Rights Act through Congress. It was claimed that Johnson, a very old hand in Washington, had a dirty-laundry file on his colleagues in Congress bigger than J. Edgar Hoover’s secret files at the F.B.I. – and even had the dirt on Hoover. Whether Johnson was successful at passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through intimidation, blackmail or sheer force of will is irrelevant. What mattered was the aftermath in Washington. Third parties started forming in the South, and the Republican Party decided on a “Southern strategy” to move into the South and replace the Democrats. By the mid-1970s, the two parties had swapped geographic bases. And George McGovern was in the forefront of that shift, a completely unrepentant, unwaivering liberal. The party finally caught up with him.
Which may explain his loss in 1972 better than any analysis of his campaign blunders or too-outspoken style. The parties were in flux and there was no discernible geographic base for the Democrats. Southern conservatives hadn’t all left the Democratic party yet, but liberal Republicans were still clinging to the belief that they knew what their party stood for. Some still do, which is why moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe are bailing out.
George McGovern died peacefully in a Souix City, South Dakota, hospice this morning at the age of 90. He lived a full and productive life, dedicated to public service even when he was out of office. He authored fourteen books, eleven historical or political, his autobiography and an examination of his political beliefs, and an intensely personal book about his daughter Theresa’s fight with alcoholism, which she lost in 1994. In July, he lost his 60-year-old son Steven to the disease. His wife Eleanor Stegeberg predeceased him in 2007. They are survived by three daughters, Ann, Susan and Mary, ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
McGovern spent much of his career, both in and out of elected office, fighting against hunger. It was what he wanted to be remembered for, saying once, “After I’m gone, I want people to say about me: He did the best he could to end hunger in this country and the world.” He said that when he heard the Serenity Prayer, with its line “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” he rejected that. “I keep trying to change them.”
What McGovern wrote in his 2011 book, What It Means To Be A Democrat is even more relevant today than it was during his career: “Above all, being a Democrat means having compassion for others…It means standing up for people who have been kept down.”
Thank you, Senator, for putting into words why I am a proud Democrat.