George McGovern: The road not taken

Conventional wisdom “blames McGovern and the anti-war left” for splitting the Democratic Party, hastening its decline.

George McGovern had moral and political courage that really counted in his political career [AP]

George McGovern, who passed away on Sunday – October 21 – was the son of a fundamentalist Methodist preacher and a World War II war hero, who flew 35 missions as a B-24 Liberator pilot over Nazi-occupied Europe. Among his medals was a Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism in landing his severely damaged plane after it was shot, and saving his crew. 

It was just the sort of biography one might wish for running for President as a conservative, but the fact that McGovern is widely – though mistakenly – perceived in America as a symbol of out-of-touch cultural liberalism, held responsible for the decline of the Democratic Party should alert us to the fact that something is missing in how we Americans commonly understand the world – and, thereby, ourselves as well.  

Even the remembrance of McGovern by historian Rick Perelstein, author of Nixonland, reveals a rare lacuna, as he concludes: 

He was a good man in politics, perhaps too good; Mr Christian, an aide entitled his memoir about him. Although he was a funny sort of Christian. He never seemed to accept that we live in a fallen world.

Yet, from John Winthrop’s shining city on a hill, to the abolitionists who ignored the Biblical support for slavery, to the church-based black Southern core of the Civil Rights movement, to something in the heart of millions of poor immigrants who came to these shores, America has repeatedly been shaped and reshaped by Christians (and others) whose defining characteristic was precisely that: a refusal to accept the triumph of evil in the world. 

McGovern’s decency is something none can doubt. It is America’s decency that is in question. This is, after all, the country that turned its back on him in 1972, when he called out, “come home America” (“From secrecy and deception in high places… to the affirmation that we have a dream… to the belief that we can seek a newer world”) and re-elected Tricky Dick Nixon by 60-40 landslide instead. 

But what if the American flaw is not a lack of decency, but of courage?  

Moral and political courage

McGovern had courage to burn. He was a war hero, of course, though he never talked of it. In his remembrance, historian Robert Mann (author of A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent Into Vietnam, the only Senate-centred history of the war) wrote that “McGovern was perhaps the truest and bravest war hero to run for president in the 20th Century”, but when it came to running on his military record, “McGovern was too modest to do it”.  

But it was another sort of courage – moral and political courage – that really counted in McGovern’s political career. A striking example of this was the Senate speech he gave just before the vote on the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment in 1970, which would have ended the Vietnam War.  

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 honour 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 someday curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.” 

When McGovern said “every senator”, he did not exclude himself. And with good reason. As Mann recounts in his remembrance, McGovern went through a crucial period in 1964, and through to November 1965, when he held his tongue in public. It was not from lack of courage so much as political miscalculation – he thought that by staying silent in public, he could have more private influence with LBJ. In his remembrance, Mann recalls bringing this up at a symposium marking McGovern’s 75th birthday, at which he criticised McGovern for being “complicit” at this time.  

The word was offensive to most in the room, and Mann came to regret using it. “It was not a word I would use today in criticising McGovern. He wasn’t complicit; he was just tragically mistaken about Johnson’s willingness to listen to wise and blunt private advice on Vietnam,” Mann wrote. 

“But if most of the people in the room were offended by my words, there was at least one who didn’t seem very concerned. His name was George McGovern. He was lovely and gracious to me in our encounters throughout the remainder of the day. His quote to Witcover when asked about my remarks was simply that the word ‘complicit’ was ‘a bit too strong’.” 

This anecdote is most telling, because it shows McGovern to be capable of accepting criticism in precisely the way that LBJ was not. In his conclusion, Mann writes:

I choose to celebrate the extraordinary personal qualities that distinguished George McGovern and earn him a special place in my heart.

He was a courageous man, a patriot and a true American hero.

And he was a man of uncommon modesty, decency, compassion and kindness. 

All that is true, but there’s something more as well: how those qualities, or their lack in others, have shaped American history – and how we can learn from that history to do better. 

“Many spoke openly of the historical resonance with John and Robert Kennedy, but McGovern embodied that same exceptionalism as well, and in
a less glamorous, more down-to-earth way.”

Great Society vision

With the release of LBJ’s White House tapes, it became clear why McGovern’s private entreaties had no effect: LBJ did not need to be convinced that the Vietnam War was bad policy. He already knew and believed that himself, but he believed even more that he’d be impeached if he failed to fight.

Mann’s book clearly established the origins of Johnson’s thinking: How the Democrat’s dramatic -though brief – loss of the Senate in the wake of the Korean War, elevated Johnson to Minority Leader, making him the point man responsible for regaining the majority. There were many more actors than two in Mann’s book. But the contrast between these two is most instructive. Both men knew what was right, and both men did what seemed politically expedient for a time. 

But McGovern’s patience with conventional practice was severely limited: when he saw it wasn’t working, he abandoned it. What set him apart was not so much his idealism (remarkable though it was) as it was the supposed opposite: his pragmatism in seeing what was working or not, and changing his strategy accordingly. This is what Johnson failed to do.

The Korean War had been politically deadly for Democrats because the stench of McCarthyism was already in the air. But McCarthyism had been substantially discredited by the time LBJ came to power. A new wave of idealism was in the air, and Kennedy’s assassination had at least potentially consecrated, rather than killed it. 

Had LBJ followed his convictions, rather than his fears, he would have avoided splitting his own base, which is what the Vietnam War ultimately would do. More viscerally for him, he would have avoided undermining his Great Society vision, which represented everything he passionately believed in. 

Conventional wisdom blames McGovern and the anti-war left for splitting the Democratic Party, hastening its political decline. But the Democrat’s inexorable shift to the support of the civil rights, signalled most strongly by Truman, and utterly required by the Cold War struggle for Third World support, had already begun splitting the Democratic Party, as far back as the Dixiecrat walkout of the 1948 convention. This process only made it more imperative for a true pragmatist to do everything possible to avoid further fragmentation – and imperative that was utterly ignored.

Instead, it was Johnson’ own fears which took us to war in the first place, aided and abetted by a complicit Senate in which George McGovern only slightly belatedly became one of the leading exceptions to the rule. In the choice between the exceptional and the conventional, what defines America at its best has always been, and always will be, the exceptional, not the conventional.

In 2008, candidate Obama ran a campaign that for all its vagueness at its core was an unbridled appeal to the exceptional in us, and people responded hungrily. Many spoke openly of the historical resonance with John and Robert Kennedy, but McGovern embodied that same exceptionalism as well, and in a less glamorous, more down-to-earth way.

Once in office, however, Obama governed quite conventionally, surrounding himself with conventional advisers and isolating himself from the very roots of his exceptional support. Obama’s failure to grasp the lessons of the Vietnam War era have been a great source of disappointment, not least for those who hoped for so much more, and still support him, because they know so much worse is all too possible.

But to know how much better is possible, we need to do what Obama has not done. We Americans still have much, much more to learn from George McGovern about how to be our best selves.  

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.