The LuLac Edition #2237, October 21st, 2012
George McGovern died this morning at the age of 90. For anyone who grew up in the 60s, George McGovern was a political figure that was a creature who’s career was mixed with happenstance as well as rock solid beliefs in what he stood for. McGovern was a bomber pilot in World War II serving successful missions. When he came home to South Dakota in the 40s he went to school, as many veterans did on the GI bill. He served three terms in Congress and was elected to the Senate in 1962. McGovern was relatively unknown to the nation until the death of Robert Kennedy in the midst of the 1968 Presidential campaign. The Kennedy people, in the aftermath of the assassination of the Senator did not want to swing their support to their arch rival Eugene McCarthy. Nor were they willing to align themselves with Vice President Hubert Humphrey who had not come out for a bombing halt in the Vietnam War. So the Kennedy team asked McGovern to be the standard bearer for the Kennedy candidacy. McGovern delayed making a decision, making sure that Bobby's brother Ted Kennedy did not want to enter, and with his staff still concerned about the senator's own reelection prospects. Finally he did so and received a few hundred votes at the 1968 Convention in Chicago.
After the tumult of that violent convention, the Democrats decided to change the party rules. Stung by the fact that Humphrey won the nomination by not entering any primaries, the pendulum changed drastically. No longer where there winner take all primaries. Plus the rules made the party more inclusive for blacks and women. When George McGovern decided to run for President in 1972, the old time party rules of engagement were gone. It was tailor made for McGovern’s insurgency.
Like McCarthy in 1968, McGovern did not win the New Hampshire primary against Edmund Muskie, Humphrey’s Vice President and a Maine Senator. But his margin was close enough in defeat to rock the Muskie effort. During his primary victories, McGovern used an approach that stressed grassroots-level organization while bypassing conventional campaign techniques and traditional party power centers. He capitalized on support from anti-war activists, reform liberals, and students. McGovern ran on a platform that advocated withdrawal from the Vietnam War in exchange for the return of American prisoners of war and amnesty for draft evaders who had left the country. McGovern's platform also included an across-the-board, 37 percent reduction in defense spending over three years. He proposed a "demogrant" program that would give a $1,000 payment to every citizen in America. Based around existing ideas such as the negative income tax and intended to replace the welfare bureaucracy and complicated maze of existing public-assistance programs, it nonetheless garnered considerable derision as a poorly thought out "liberal giveaway" and was dropped from the platform. But that charge stuck as did many other issues in the general election.
McGovern’s convention was a triumph and a disaster at the same time. Down 3% in name recognition in January he won the big prize. But because of the total inclusiveness of the campaign, and multiple nominees for President, McGovern gave his speech at 3AM. Not many people saw it. McGovern’s running mate pick, Senator Thomas Eagleton also tuned into a big problem. it was revealed that Eagleton had received electroshock therapy for clinical depression during the 1960s. McGovern initially supported Eagleton, in part because he saw parallels with his daughter Terry's battles with mental illness. But reality set in and McGovern needed a running mate. After asking Senators Muskie, Jackson, Humphrey, Church and Hughes, plus a plethora of others, R. Sargent Shriver the former Director of the Peace Corps and Kennedy in law ran with him. The general election campaign did not go well for McGovern. Nixon was buoyed by the success of his visits to China and the Soviet Union and, shortly before the election, Henry Kissinger's somewhat premature statement that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. Top Republican figures attacked McGovern for being weak on defense issues and "encouraging the enemy". McGovern chose to not emphasize his own war record during the campaign. The McGovern Commission changes to the convention rules (which helped him gain the election, did not help in the fall effort) marginalized the influence of establishment Democratic Party figures, and McGovern struggled to get endorsements from figures such as former President Johnson and Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Some southern Democrats, led by former Texas governor John Connally, switched their support to the incumbent President Nixon through a campaign effort called "Democrats for Nixon". In addition, McGovern was publicly attacked by Nixon surrogates, and was the target of various operations of the Nixon "dirty tricks" campaign. The infamous Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972 was an alternate target after bugging McGovern's headquarters was explored. The full dimensions of the Watergate scandal did not emerge until after the election, however, and Nixon's covert operations had little effect on the outcome.
McGovern lost 49 states and was stung by the defeat. He briefly considered moving to England. He served 8 more years in the Senate before being displaced in 1980 by the Reagan landslide. McGovern's Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs expanded its scope to include national nutrition policy. In 1977 it issued a new set of nutritional guidelines for Americans that sought to combat leading killer health conditions. Titled Dietary Goals for the United States, but also known as the "McGovern Report", it suggested that Americans eat less fat, less cholesterol, less refined and processed sugars, and more complex carbohydrates and fiber. While many public health officials had said all of this for some time, the committee's issuance of the guidelines gave it higher public profile. The recommendations proved controversial with the cattle, dairy, egg, and sugar industries, including from McGovern's home state.
McGovern harbored thoughts of running in the 1976 presidential election, but given the magnitude of his presidential defeat, the Democratic Party wanted nothing to do with him then or later. Unfamiliar and uncomfortable with Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, McGovern secretly voted for Ford instead. McGovern ran again in 1984, this time as an issues candidate with no chance of winning and introduced himself to a new generation of Democrats. McGovern hosted Saturday Night Live in 1984, considered another run for President in 1992, wrote 7 books, (one on Abraham Lincoln one on the Iraq war) and served as chair of various policy councils. He also went into the bed ands breakfast business in the early 90s. His wife (Eleanor) died in 2007 and also spoke opening of the alcoholism and death of his daughter Terry. McGovern was slated to be on CSPAN in a documentary in December of 2012 but was injured in a fall. He went into Hospice earlier this month.
McGovern in effect became my generation’s Adlai Stevenson. He and his campaign was different, witty, principled and ultimately failed. But from that failure came an appreciation of the political process and just what serving meant in the public arena. While McGovern might not have become President, he inspired many (most notably Bill and Hillary Clinton) who did. And that is a legacy any public figure would accept gladly.