Sunday, 21 October 2012

George McGovern was a great guy

It is a sign of our sorry times that this completely decent, thoughtful, courageous man who once carried the standard of his party to the highest level became an anathema with his ideas thrown overboard as some sort of dangerous bilge water. George McGovern had the audacity (a real version, not the present head-fake) to say that going to war in Vietnam was not only wrong but immoral and to say it on the floor of the Senate. A lot of people saw that he was right at the time, but the machinery of state, especially including the propaganda apparatus that sustains it, promptly set to work to airbrush that debacle out of our histories and our minds and to repaint the picture of our heroic warriors in a more favorable light--so that they could go out and do it all again.

McGovern had a dangerous job in World War 2 (bombing missions), so he wasn’t all glassy-eyed about the marvels of going to war and its effects on masculine character. He campaigned and spoke about what was right, not what was good for American power and influence, and for that he was crushed, not just in the elections but forever afterward when he became a non-person and his supporters were blamed for the weather. While Richard Nixon, the guy who shellacked McGovern in the 1972 election, was later pilloried for his political crimes, his massive and pointless slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the unnecessary extension of the war during his first term was quickly forgotten, such that one Bill Clinton could eulogize him with disgusting ease. And let’s not even talk about the other architect of those crimes, the ‘elder statesman’ Henry Kissinger, now comfortably earning his millions.

As a college student I worked for McGovern in his Washington office in the years before his presidential run and had the chance to meet him on several occasions (once with Veronica Lake in tow—I didn’t even know who she was). He was soft-spoken and amused at the blockheadedness and perversity around him in the Senate, but he was still optimistic about the chances for making a progressive case to the nation. Then his nomination came about, propelled by the remnant energies of the 1960s and a brigade of young volunteers at least as alienated from the political system as those of today. The professional operatives were appalled, and even though the Democratic Party had not yet been captured by the neo-liberal business lapdogs, they probably weren’t sorry to see him lose.

McGovern was later turned out of his senate seat in South Dakota, too, and he was philosophical about that loss. He said that the voters wanted someone more conservative, and so they got one. But he mourned his failed shot at the presidency because his campaign was bushwhacked by the Thomas Eagleton disaster where his Veep pick had to quit in mid-campaign after some revelations about his treatment for depression. McG said he would have accepted defeat if he had had a chance to make his case, but the noise over Eagleton drowned out his arguments.

In retirement McGovern took up another cause that is less well-known: that of alcoholism treatment in honor of his beloved daughter Terry who struggled with the disease all her life and in 1994 was found dead in a snowbank after relapsing. The book he wrote about that experience sold well enough for him to form a small foundation in her memory. A second of his four children also died of alcoholism-related illnesses a few months ago. McGovern said his daughter’s death was the most painful event of his life.

George McGovern retained a gentlemanly demeanor and wry, self-deprecating humor throughout his decades dedicated to serving the public welfare. If citizenship, rather than power and cash, were our core values, we would be lining up to salute his remains and his exemplary life.

1 comment:

LC said...

There are very few possibilities for a person of conscience who is not noisily hate-filled and rigidly conservative (so many of our loud, hating types claim to be acting out of "conscience") to stand out in today's scene. I'm not sure which are worse, the haters or the crass opportunists who could care less about principle. However, the more of us who quietly follow a peaceful and progressive path of conscience, whatever that may look like on the local level, the better things will be in small ways.

Thank you for this thoughtful piece. It is a small, but peaceful and important contribution, because it has reminded me of a good man.