Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Substantial Human Being: George McGovern 1922 - 2012

The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher standard. – George S. McGovern
I was thirteen years old in 1972 when George McGovern ran for president and lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon. Although too young to vote, I remember vividly that election, the moral clarity of the choices facing the country and the volatility of the times in which we lived. The contrast between McGovern, the plain spoken son of a Methodist minister from the Great Plains who passionately opposed an unjust war and sought to make the United States a more inclusive, fair and decent nation, and the dark, brooding, paranoid Tricky Dick, was stark and readily apparent.

Robert Kennedy said that George McGovern was “the most decent man in the Senate.” The New Yorker described McGovern as “a calm, quiet, friendly, open, unself-conscious man” who “projects an air of old-fashioned integrity and decency.” A war hero who became an advocate for peace; a child of the Great Depression who understood how good, hardworking people sometimes need a helping hand, he was a rare politician, a kind and honest man who spoke truth to power. McGovern is no longer with us, and America has lost a good friend and a needed voice.

He believed America could do better. He did not understand why the United States, the richest, most blessed nation on earth, tolerated high levels of unemployment, failing schools, hungry children, and poverty in our inner cities, on Indian reservations, and in rural America. Throughout his political and post-political life, he urged policies of peace and compassion. In his campaign for President, he called for an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, a national commitment to full employment, a guaranteed minimum income for the poor, amnesty for draft dodgers, diplomatic recognition of Cuba and China, and an end to corporate welfare. It may not have been smart politics, but he appealed always to America’s sense of decency and to the better instincts and traditions of U.S. history. And on most issues, history and time has proven him correct.

He wanted to end the war in Vietnam, not because he was a pacifist – he piloted a B-24 Liberator in World War II and flew 35 bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross – but because he was sickened by American boys being maimed and killed by the thousands in support of a corrupt regime and an unjust war. “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in,” he said. McGovern had seen enough death and destruction as a member of the Greatest Generation to know that war should always be a last resort. It required no courage to advocate war from the Senate floor, he argued, or to send American boys to die from the safe confines of the Pentagon.

In September 1963, McGovern became the first U.S. Senator to publicly oppose America’s growing military commitment in Southeast Asia. “The current dilemma in Vietnam,” he said, “is a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power. . . . a policy of moral debacle and political defeat.” It was not a popular stance at the time and it upset his friends, the Kennedys. But he did not concern himself with polls or popular sentiment. He did and said what he believed was right.

Nine years later, during a speech at Wheaton College in Illinois, a distinctively Christian college, McGovern challenged the students to consider whether, consistent with the teachings of their religion, they prayed not only for American troops who were fighting and dying in a far off land, but also for the millions of Vietnamese whose homes were being destroyed and lives ended by U.S. bombs. Troubled by indifference to the suffering of others, he urged Americans to understand the larger consequences of war and to “change those things in our character which turned us astray, away from the truth that the people of Vietnam are, like us, children of God.”

Speaking in Miami at the Democratic convention in 1972, in a speech most Americans never heard because it was given at 2:00 a.m. (leave it to the Democrats), McGovern gave an impassioned promise to end the war within 90 days:

In 1968 many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins. I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day. There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North. And . . . every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong. And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.

A wise and educated man, McGovern had attended seminary and studied for the ministry before earning a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in American history. His greatest concerns, war and poverty, were a direct influence of his Christian faith. A history teacher before entering politics in 1957, he was perhaps too honest for his own good, too willing to say what he believed and to pursue causes he felt were the moral imperatives of a great nation. He was not necessarily a smart politician. “Ever since I was a young boy, I wanted to run for President in the worst possible way,” he said in 1973, “and I did.” By the early seventies, he was deemed too liberal, a naïve idealist, too tolerant of the countercultural instincts and social movements then sweeping across the land. “You know,” he acknowledged later, “sometimes, when they say you’re ahead of your time, it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.”

Although remembered today mostly for his crushing presidential defeat, McGovern devoted most of his life to fighting hunger and poverty. In 1960, he conceived the idea of the Food for Peace program, which extended credit to poor countries to buy surplus U.S. crops. Appointed by President John F. Kennedy as its first director in 1961, Food for Peace helped feed 10 million people in its first year and operated in a dozen countries. McGovern also was instrumental in creating the United Nations World Food Program, a humanitarian agency that provides food assistance to hundreds of millions of poor and hungry people around the world, including victims of war and natural disasters. As a Senator he worked with Democrats and moderate Republicans to expand school lunch and nutrition programs, food stamps and other anti-poverty programs.

“It is in our self-interest to end hunger,” he wrote in 1998. “After all, we live in one world. Rich and poor alike, we breathe the same air; we share a global economy. . . . The chaos associated with political instability rooted in poverty and desperation is rarely contained within a single country.”

The history books do not often treat losers kindly. After his humiliating defeat in the 1972 election, McGovern became the brunt of jokes on late-night talk shows, a symbol of American defeatism on the right and of naïve idealism (and bad politics) on the left. But as Chris Hedges noted in a tribute to McGovern, “[T]hose who write history do not take into account the moral or the good, what is right or what is wrong, what endures and what does not.” I hope history treats McGovern kindly. As a lifelong teacher, public servant, and author, he never became a wealthy man. He instead sought to make the world a better, more decent place.

He is at peace now, forever resting while America continues to find its way in the world. His greatest legacy will be the decency of his politics, the kindness of his being, and the redeeming quality of his words. Shortly before he lost to Nixon, while campaigning in New York City, McGovern ordered a chopped-liver sandwich at Dubrow’s Cafeteria in the Garment District. As recounted in The New Yorker, McGovern had just finished his sandwich when someone in the background shouted, “Hey, McGovern, you’re a mensch!” McGovern turned to his aide. “Abrams,” he said, “what is a mensch?” Abrams replied, “It’s good, Senator. It means you’re a substantial human being.”

A substantial human being. A mensch. America needs more people like McGovern, people of his character and integrity, moral simplicity and honest speech. Perhaps his spirit will help us achieve his prayer for America, the concluding words of his nominating speech in 1972: “May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.” We’ll miss you George.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Strat-O-Matic Memories: The Football Years

Okay, so it wasn’t quite like that. But since what I am about to discuss involves a group of knucklehead teenage males obsessed with a football board game played with dice and statistically-based player cards, I thought a photograph that depicted “fantasy football” could at least gain your attention. After all, even Ehlers on Everything is not beyond the shameless exploitation of sex to increase readership. In reality, Strat-O-Matic Pro Football, which helped define and influence the autumns of my youth, involved a geek-like devotion to statistics, strategy, and play calling; more fact than fantasy.

Having discovered Strat-O-Matic Baseball and its statistical realism a year earlier, my brother Steve and I decided to give the football version a try following the 1970 NFL season. Hal Richman and the Strat-O-Matic Game Company came out with the first edition of the football game in 1968, following the NFL season that featured Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers as Super Bowl champions. My interest in pro football developed a year or so later, when Joe Namath and the New York Jets upset Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. Unlike Strat-O-Matic Baseball, which I played alone, the football version involved head-to-head matchups between testosterone-driven teenagers whose pride and emotional well-being depended on winning a game that was determined in part by the luck of a dice roll.

Intrigued by the notion of friendly competition, Steve and I recruited three of our best friends from the neighborhood and formed a five-team league. Mark Erson, a Lutheran minister’s son from across the street whose family hailed from New York, picked the Vikings, while his older brother Tim chose the New York Giants. Mike Dennehy, my lifelong friend who loved Detroit teams for reasons possibly less rational than my love of St. Louis teams, coached the Detroit Lions. I naturally picked the St. Louis football Cardinals that first season, while Steve chose the Philadelphia Eagles. In the first year of play, we each coached just one team, though in subsequent years we expanded to three teams each. After the first season, Mark and Tim would drop out and we would be joined by Joe Sbarra, the oldest of five siblings from a rambunctious, sports-crazed family up the street, and Phil Zirkle, another resident of our block, whose family originated from Baltimore. Phil reminded me of our dog Peppy, a bit moody and surly around the edges, but whose bark was worse than his bite.

The games were intense, the desire to win palpable. I recall more than a few closed-door pep talks to a stack of player cards before the scheduled kickoffs as the “coaches” defined offensive and defensive strategies and anticipated how to out-maneuver the opponent. I know most of you reading this cannot likely relate. But for those who ever played Strat-O-Matic Football, there exists a mutual understanding from shared experiences, when bonds and friendships are formed. “Friendship,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”

As with all Strat-O-Matic games, the statistical realism of the football version is unmatched, as each player and team performs consistent with real-life abilities. But it was the head-to-head competition in the football version that made playing Strat-O-Matic Football such a uniquely intense experience. As Hal Richman has said, “Head-to-head, Strat-O-Matic Football is the best sports game ever invented.” We engaged in a battle of wits, constantly trying to outguess the other side. After a close game, the winner was elated, the loser emotionally spent. This profound desire to win undoubtedly contributed to the creative assortment of profanities frequently uttered on the sidelines during each game. It was not unheard of for occasional inanimate objects to be thrown. Visitors entered the room of play at their own risk. Parents did their best to ignore us, and we wisely played most games in the basement, protected by distance and built-in concrete sound barriers, but every so often an adult would yell, “Settle down!” or “Watch your language!” usually to little effect.

Similar to Strat-O-Matic Baseball (see Strat-O-Matic Memories: The Baseball Years), the outcome of each play was determined by a roll of the dice – one white and two red. The white die determined whether to look on the offensive cards (1, 2, 3) or defensive cards (4, 5, 6), while the red die (totaling between 2 and 12) determined where in that column to look. The offense could choose to run (linebuck, off-tackle, or end run) or pass (flat pass, short pass, and long pass), directing each play to a particular running back or receiver. Some running backs, like O.J. Simpson (my favorite player before I discovered he was a homicidal maniac), was particularly dangerous on the end run and off tackle, while fullbacks like Larry Csonka were solid and almost unstoppable on inside runs. Fumbles and interceptions were always a concern, and you learned to minimize the risks where possible. On passing plays, the flat pass was the easiest to complete but often yielded short yardage. A short pass was designed to gain at least ten or more yards, but you needed a really good quarterback to complete a high percentage of these passes without getting sacked or throwing an interception. And the deep route, or long pass, involved substantial risks (more interceptions and sacks), but offered potentially great rewards (long gains and touchdowns).

Coaching and play calling was particularly important in the football version because the outcome of each play was greatly affected by whether the defensive team “guessed” right or wrong in defending against the run or pass. As the offensive player cards were divided between “right” and “wrong” columns, guessing correctly on defense could make the difference between stopping the offense or giving up substantial yardage. The defensive coach could also key on a particular running back or double team a receiver. A successful double team could shut down a team’s offense and unsettle the opposing team’s coach, but if you guessed wrong, you risked giving up a big play.

To protect the integrity of the play calling, we cut out the ends of shoe boxes, which when placed upside down formed an enclosed shelter that shielded the play-calling cards on each side of the game board. The offensive coach secretly chose a play – say, short pass-flanker – by placing a penny over the markers for “short pass” and “flanker”. Meanwhile, the defensive coach placed a penny over the marker depicting either “run” or “pass”. If he was particularly daring, he might also double team or key on a running back or receiver (but keying the wrong player automatically resulted in a “wrong” defensive formation). When the offensive coach announced the play, the defensive coach would respond “right”, “wrong”, or “keyed”. Although we mostly operated under an honor system, there were times when the defensive coach guessed right several plays in a row and the offensive coach would demand proof. The defensive coach would then have to reveal the placement of his penny by lifting the shoe box shelter. Sadly, even in these pre-Watergate days of American innocence, an opponent was occasionally caught with the penny lingering somewhere in-between the run and pass markers. Richard Nixon’s lament, “I am not a crook,” fell on deaf ears. Tell it to the judge. At such times, bad feelings ensued and proof was thereafter demanded after every play, restoring truth and justice to the American gridiron.

“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” So said David Sarnoff, founder of the RCA Corporation. Never was this more so than in our Strat-O-Matic Football league, where displays of poor character and unhinged emotional breakdowns were common occurrences. You see, however realistic Strat-O-Matic board games are – and the statistical realism is unmatched with each team playing to its abilities over the course of fourteen or sixteen games – the outcome of each play, each field goal attempt, each pass or run, is still determined in the end by luck and a roll of the dice.

Thus, there was the time when Mike’s Detroit Lions lost to my Kansas City Chiefs on a last second field goal. Although these final points occurred as the result of clever play calling that put my team within field goal range with fifteen seconds left on the clock, followed by a skillful roll of the dice, Mike failed to see it that way. As I quietly celebrated a 40-yard kick by Jan Stenerud and waited for the customary handshake and “good game” exchange, Mike slammed his fist and overturned the card table. Player cards and dice immediately became airborne as the game board landed on my lap. Mike stormed up the stairs and out of the basement as I gently lifted the card table from my thighs and picked up the scattered dice and player cards from the basement floor. As Mike reached the top of the basement steps, I seem to recall that his last remarks involved references to “luck” and the son of a female canine.

Years later, when Mike went off to Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, he and a group of classmates formed their own Strat-O-Matic Football league.  Following one particularly frustrating loss, Mike is reported to have tossed a copy of The Lives of Saints through his dorm window.  A few minutes later, his roommate, who was nearly struck by the flying book while returning from the library, entered the room, looked at the disheveled state of affairs and the shattered glass and said, "I guess Mike lost."  Mike now makes his living as a guidance counselor and coach of the women’s softball team at a public high school in New Jersey, molding the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.

Then there was the time Roy Shivers, my prize halfback for the Cardinals who averaged 4.7 yards per carry, fumbled the ball, not once but twice, while inside the opposing team’s ten yard line, each time resulting in a stomach churning turnover. After the second fumble I may have experienced a temporary blackout. In the words of Jimmy Hoffa before a Senate Rackets Committee hearing, “My memory fails to recall my recollection.” A string of profanities and end-of-the-world prophecies were likely exclaimed. It is possible that an old wooden chair was broken after an unfortunate collision with the basement floor (sorry Dad, it was me after all) and, much to my regret, Shivers’ player card was crumpled beyond recognition. Later in the game, realizing I still needed Shivers in the backfield, I sheepishly picked him up off the floor, un-crumpled his card, and attempted to iron out his wrinkles. He remained a wounded warrior the rest of the season.

Rumor has it that Phil once kicked a hole in the kitchen wall of the Sbarra residence following the second of two blocked punts by Joe’s Green Bay Packers. I am told that the Sbarra-version of Lambeau Field was thereafter moved to an undisclosed location. A few years later, Phil was hired as a security guard, responsible for protecting property. Fortunately, his background check failed to disclose his past act of vandalism and expulsion from the Sbarra household.

I would like to tell you that playing Strat-O-Matic football brought with it a certain stature in life, a series of lessons that built character and developed a sense of manhood. While slightly older and braver young men went off to war and fought valiantly in the jungles of Vietnam, the five of us battled over a game board, player cards, and the statistical probabilities of dice rolls. It was a test of wills between an eclectic group of neighborhood friends in central New Jersey, each seeking bragging rights in what seemed at the time a very important matter.

With the passing of time comes perspective. “There are no days more full, than those we go back to,” wrote Colum McCann. There are days still when I long for the simple joys of playing a game with impractical seriousness. I have traveled far from the zany days of my youth, when life’s successes and failures were measured in part by a football board game, player cards, and a roll of the dice. It seems silly now, but I treasure the memories. Whenever I speak with or visit my former Strat football opponents, we inevitably re-live the controversial, funny, and heart wrenching moments of past games. I am forever grateful to Strat-O-Matic for allowing me to have been irrational and passionate about something so insignificant, yet which seemed at the time so momentous. “What was our life like?” ponders Richard Ford in The Sportswriter. “I almost don’t remember now. Though I remember it, the space of time it occupied. And I remember it fondly.”