George McGovern (1922 – 2012)
Malcolm gets another twinge: not just the gouty Arthur Itis, but remembering that he is old enough to have been wishin’ n’ hopin’ the impossible back in 1972. That, forty years back, was George McGovern’s quixotic ride as presidential candidate against the awesome might of Tricky Dicky Nixon in his pomp and pride.
McGovern was everything a loopy, loony lefty like Malcolm could wish for in a (almost) mainstream U.S. politician. Well, OK: he was (circa 1972) clearly separated-at birth-from Harvey Korman as ‘Hedley Lamarr’ in Blazing Saddles. Spot the difference (as right). Had McGovern some of the the manic connivance and contortion of ‘Hedley Lamarr’, he might have fared better. The 1972 Presidential Election, though, was as badly-matched as any.
“I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie. My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I’m what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like.
“But we probably didn’t work enough on cultivating that image. We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment.
“It was an issue-oriented campaign, and we should have paid more attention to image.”
Theodore White, in The Making of the President 1972 (still in print, and an original still on Malcolm’s shelves), reckoned McGovern frightened too many Americans, while Nixon could use power better. If so, one of the persuaders employed by the Nixonites was to depict McGovern as the ‘peacenik’. The irony of that is , as McGovern himself noted: ‘The truth is, I was the guy with the war record, and my opposition to Vietnam was because I was interested in the nation’s well-being.’ McGovern flew the Dakota Queen (the original back home was his wife Eleanor), a B24 Liberator, many, many missions over Axis territory, survived being shot-up over Pilsen and a crash-landing, for which he was awarded the DFC. None of that was properly pushed in that bizarre 1972 campaign — for that was how McGovern wanted it.
There will be many obituaries of this great man, and life-long unabashed liberal — indeed, they are already coming in. While the tradition for these things is de mortuis nil nisi bonum, for once subsequent histories are unlikely to reverse those encomiums.
Let’s see how many of them print the story of the ‘Kiss my arse’ moment.
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 honor 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
Afghanistan 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 some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
Senator George McGovern (South Dakota, Dem), September 1970.