Ron Radosh

George McGovern: R.I.P.

Look no further for what was wrong with the late George McGovern’s politics than this tribute to him by the liberal columnist Eleanor Clift. Clift concludes her tribute this way: 

Much of what McGovern stands for is summed up in the slogan of his ’72 campaign, “Come Home America.” Ridiculed by critics at the time, it enjoys renewed resonance today in a country weary of wars that in McGovern’s view are “just as silly as the war in Vietnam. We shouldn’t be in countries we don’t know anything about.”

In fact, the slogan posited a return to the old isolationism shared by both the Old and New Left and the Old Right and their present-day paleoconservative activists. Rather than have resonance today, a move towards right- or left-wing isolationism would all but guarantee a retreat on our nation’s part that would assure the eventual dominance of the West’s major enemies — whether it was the Soviet Union in the recent past or the mullahs of Iran and the Islamists today.

In the New York Times, the late David Rosenbaum’s obituary, prepared for the paper before its author himself passed away, made this point:

The Republicans portrayed Mr. McGovern as a cowardly left-winger, a threat to the military and the free-market economy and someone outside the mainstream of American thought. Whether those charges were fair or not, Mr. McGovern never lived down the image of a liberal loser, and many Democrats long accused him of leading the party astray.

McGovern may not have been the candidate of “abortion, amnesty, and acid” as Nixon proclaimed he was in the election that led to the senator’s devastating defeat, but in fact McGovern was not simply the Western prairie liberal described by Rosenbaum and other obituary writers. In fact, he was a left-wing labor historian with a Ph.D. about The Great Coalfield War , the story of the same Ludlow Massacre of 1913 which Woody Guthrie put to music.

He also was a war hero and patriot. He flew scores of major bombing raids over Italy, Austria, and Germany during World War II for which he received a Distinguished Flying Cross. McGovern often said he would fly over Auschwitz, and was horrified that he and his comrades never received an order to bomb the railroad tracks used to transport Jews being brought to the gas chambers. Later, McGovern would say his own experience of raining death and destruction on civilians hit by the bombs he dropped turned him into a fierce opponent of all military action.

As the Cold War developed, McGovern became a typical anti-war fellow traveler of the American Communists. Left out of most of the obituaries is the fact that McGovern was a delegate to the Henry A. Wallace Progressive Party convention in 1948 that nominated Wallace for a presidential run in a party created and dominated by the American Communist Party. A small faction of delegates from Vermont sought to pass a resolution calling for the party to have an independent foreign policy. The Communists took that as an effort of some members to not support the Soviet Union. The resolution was defeated, as delegates including McGovern voted to reject it.

Later, he would take positions akin to those Wallace took in 1948, arguing that the Cold War was being waged because the United States refused to accommodate serious Soviet concerns for their own security. In one sense, his own massive defeat in 1972 — losing the Electoral College vote in every state except Massachusetts, including his own South Dakota — showed that McGovern proved as unpopular to the American people as Wallace was in 1948.

With the McGovern rules created by a commission he chaired, the Democratic Party was transformed into an institution beholden to special interest groups of the Left that easily used those rules to pick McGovern himself as their candidate. His effort began the slow takeover of the once mainstream party by forces of the far Left.

McGovern himself never had a real chance. I recall watching him on the main convention night, postponing his acceptance speech until 1:00 a.m. — way after most viewers were asleep — to meet outside the convention with left-wing protesters from the Maoist Progressive Labor Party. Any major party candidate who would do such a thing was clearly more than out of touch with the reality of American politics.

Years later, I heard McGovern at the PEN International Writers Conference in New York City, where he spoke on a panel with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and Bruno Kreisky, the former chancellor of Austria who was virulently anti-Israel. At that meeting, McGovern said that had he been elected president, the first thing he would have done to deal with the Middle East would have been to go to ask Kreisky for advice. Kreisky, with McGovern’s support at the panel, also called for recognition by the West of Communist East Germany, and rejected  any policy that would have sought to isolate the regime. It was clear then, listening to McGovern at that event, what a disaster he would have been for his country had he been elected.

McGovern, it is true, opposed the war in Vietnam before it was popular to do so, and showed rare political courage, taking a position he thought was right although it could not help his political career. He was a straight-shooter, honest, and principled, and one could reject his policies and still respect him as a person of honor who thought what he fought for was in the nation’s best interest. A war hero, he did not ever mention his war record to try and show that he had fought valiantly for America, even though Nixon was condemning him for weakness and for having no concern for America’s position in the world. He simply did not feel to raise his own war record was the right thing to do, especially since he had become anti-war.

His defeat revealed to most people that standing for national office on a platform of extreme leftism, if openly proclaimed, could lead only to political destruction. Future leftist candidates learned from the outcome in 1972 that a more stealth approach to a move to the left was the way to operate if one wanted to achieve, as Barack Obama put it in 2008, a “fundamental transformation” of the United States based on redistribution of wealth and attainment of a social-democratic model for a future America.

A good and decent man who advocated policies that were both dangerous and wrong, he passed away living into his 90th year. R.I.P.