George McGovern taught me about politics

When I was 16, this poster hung on my bedroom door for about a year. I know that drove my dad nuts. I was learning about politics, but clearly didn't understand it.

I wondered why so many people were against the Vietnam war, but still voted for Nixon. More young men were getting killed in Vietnam than were here at home. Nixon finally pulled our troops out of Vietnam and later on had to resign from the presidency because of the fallout from Watergate.

McGovern was a decorated World War II pilot. As a senator, he opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam from the beginning, in 1963. Arguing in 1970 for legislation to cut U.S. war spending and force troop withdrawal, he offended his colleagues by telling them, "This chamber reeks of blood," harsh words delivered in McGovern style. His 1972 presidential campaign proposals included the withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for draft evaders and steep cuts in the Pentagon budget.

McGovern got just 37 percent of the vote to Nixon's 61, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Embittered, he considered whether to even stay in politics, especially as other Democrats made him a symbol of what ailed them and kept him off their stages. McGovernite became a label for losers.

He was an idea man, not a manager. Witness the uncontrolled chaos of his nominating convention, dramatized when assorted Democratic interest groups spent so much time talking that McGovern did not get to deliver his own acceptance speech until 2:48 a.m., long after the TV audience had gone to bed.

The gentle senator could show a steely side. Rudely heckled at a Michigan rope line, McGovern pulled the heckler close and told the man, "Listen, you son of a bitch. Why don't you kiss my ass".

McGovern will be remembered for his challenges, not only to Nixon but also to the "old bulls" who ran the Senate. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Stennis talked of sending U.S. troops back into Cambodia. McGovern shot back: "I'm tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight. If he wants to use American ground troops in Cambodia, let him lead the charge himself."
McGovern was still lecturing and doing TV until a fall late last year. Elderly and frail, he flew from South Dakota to New York in 2008 to attend the funeral of a longtime debate rival, the conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr.
He will be appreciated by progressives, opponents of the Vietnam War, and the now-aging baby boomers who as young people flocked to him in 1972. A particular memory of that campaign lives on with longtime Seattle political activist Paul Elliott.
Elliott had the job of leaving a bedside snack in McGovern's hotel room. The senator liked a bowl of corn flakes with milk before hitting the hay, plus a gin martini with an onion.
The youthful Elliott arranged the fixings. As a non-drinker, however, he was not familiar with martini mixings. After a day on the campaign trail, McGovern retired to find two tiny bottles of gin, a bottle of vermouth . . . and a fist-sized Walla Walla sweet onion.
After a speech in Boise years later, he had a house full of old friends in stitches over the martini memory.
I learned that the good guy doesn't always win and the good guy might not always be the right guy. I do always vote as my heart leads me. It might not always be the popular vote, but that's OK.

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robin andrea said…
This is a wonderful post, Dave. I cast my very first vote for George McGovern, and I will always be glad for that. He was a good man.
Meggie said…
Good post, Dave! Quite inspiring.