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.