Screen shot from "Democracy Now!" special on McGovern nearing death

There is nothing I remember about the late Senator George McGovern, who just passed away at the age 0f 90. I was not alive when he made his historic run for president in 1972, energizing the antiwar movement and other Americans with hope. Nor was I alive in 1968 or 1984 when he also ran for president. And I did not ever get to vote for this man, however, I would like to take a moment to highlight the wisdom of McGovern and apply some of what he said about politics and society while he was alive to the present.

McGovern delivered remarks at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Detroit on April 25, 1972. The New York Times published his remarks under the title, “My Stand.” As the campaign of Ed Muskie floundered and Hubert Humphrey became his main rival in the Democratic primary, McGovern declared:

…Prior to the first primary election in New Hampshire, and the most recent one in Wisconsin, the conventional view of men who write and read each other’s syndicated columns was that the Presidential candidate elected in 1972 would be the one who clings most tightly to the center. This view—heavily supported by pollsters and analysts of the public mind—held that the American people wanted not a hard-fought battle over the great issues but a quiet coronation of the status quo.

I have not found this glorification of the establishment center to be the mood of the American people. Indeed, most Americans see the establishment center as an empty, decaying void that commands neither their confidence nor their love.

It is the establishment center that led us into the stupidest and cruelest war in all history. That war is a moral and political disaster—a terrible cancer eating away the soul of the nation. Yet those who charted its course brand its opponents as too far out to be electable…

McGovern’s words were an indictment of politics, where candidates split the difference and try to stake out a position they do not necessarily believe in. It was a rebuke against politicians, who try to artificially be everything to all people instead of someone authentic to some people.

He recognized democratic society benefits from debate, not from keeping issues off the table which lead to animosity between candidates or political factions. And he understood that the establishment center, in its commitment to bipartisanship, could bring about some of the worst disasters and developments in American society and politics (in this instance, the Vietnam War).

He decried the Masters of War, the military industrial-complex which the establishment center—and all politicians who govern from this place on the spectrum—were responsible for buttressing:

…[T]he establishment center has constructed a vast military colossus based on the paychecks of the American worker. That military monster, now capable of blowing up the entire world a hundred times over, is devolving two out of three of our tax dollars. It inflates our economy, picks our pockets and starves other areas of our national life…

Who was responsible for the Vietnam War? McGovern put the blame on “establishment wise men” or “academicians of the center.”

The country has seen the politics of the establishment center envelope it in the past years. The beginning of the illegal and inhumane war that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq and thousands of US soldiers was of the establishment center. Its gradual end was of the establishment center. The lukewarm or indifferent response to investigating and holding hearings holding officials responsible for lying America into a war was of the establishment center. The ultimate decision on the part of the Justice Department to not prosecute anyone or to not hold anyone responsible for torture or warrantless wiretapping was of the establishment center. It was of the belief that accountability and justice would not renew society but would further tear it apart. And, the presidency of Barack Obama has been of the establishment center, with the employment of drone strikes and special operations forces being an unmistakable product of a president who does not wish to alienate the left by launching a military occupation but recognizes he must be militaristic on some level to neutralize and stifle criticism from the right.

That said, it is not as if McGovern did not wish for the center to hold weight in American politics. It just appears he did not favor a center that based all its positions and decisions in pragmatism rather than idealism.

In the remarks McGovern uttered, he called for a revitalization of the American center “based on the ideals of the Republic.”

…The present center has drifted so far from our founding ideals that it bears little resemblance to the dependable values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I want America to come home from the alien world of power politics, militarism, deception, racism and special privilege to the blunt truth that “all men are created equal—that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”…

Such desire rooted in tradition was not in actuality radical yet in the moment it inspired a radical electoral campaign. Can one imagine what effect it would have now?

“Come home, America,” McGovern cried. “Come home from the wilderness of needless war and excessive militarism.” This would energize many Americans.

As Bill Kauffman for The American Conservative wrote, “‘Come home, America,’ the most moving, the most resonant, the truest political slogan in the history of our Republic, was suggested by Eleanor McGovern after she saw the phrase in a speech by Martin Luther King. Because it echoed the peaceful dreams of the old Middle American isolationists and because it drew a sharp contrast between the vision of the Founders and the condition of modern America, McGovern was roasted for the slogan by the Vital Centurions.”

Also, McGovern had no tolerance for “chronically cautious” politicians—”the kind of eunuchs who tell you behind closed doors that they’re against a war but don’t want to risk their position by taking a public stand.” He sponsored an “Amendment to End the War,” which called for “an end to all US military operations in or over Vietnam, Cambodia and Lao no later than December 31, 1971,” and told colleagues, “Every Senator in this Chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This Chamber reeks of blood,” bluntly laying responsibility on the doorstep of the political class.

McGovern was not a corporate-sponsored candidate like the candidates the system’s two most prominent parties have served up for Americans in this election. He bears more resemblance to a third-party candidate, which the establishment tells Americans they cannot vote for, than any one of the candidates from the Democratic or Republican Parties. In fact, the McGovern of ’72 might have mounted a primary challenge against President Obama on the basis that it would make his candidacy for re-election much better; however, in this election, all with the power to confront the bankruptcy and timidity of many of Obama’s policies opted to avoid confrontation.

With the passing of McGovern, remember he was a man who wanted America “to turn away from cursing and hatred and war to the blessings of hope and brotherhood and love.” It is a sentiment men have entered political office understanding yet ignored. Instead, they have turned coward when it came time to act upon this kind of very human idealism. They have governed as empty suits. They have become submissive to the constraints of the system, even when tacitly acknowledging these constraints are what plunges the country into deeper ruin.

The legacy of McGovern can be much more than one of a “liberal stalwart.” It can be more than how he was, as Newt Gingrich put it, a “complicated person” who was not really opposed to war. Or, that he was a World War II hero, as Mitt Romney and former Gov. Bill Richardson both said this morning. It can and should be remembered that McGovern sought to redefine what it means to be a statesman and understood correcting the deepest flaws in America would require leaders, who did not simply make hardheaded calculations but also showed the courage to govern from the heart and soul.


For more reflection on McGovern, please read this post from Firedoglake‘s dakine01, who writes about McGovern being a political hero of his adult years. Also, here’s a post from Firedoglake‘s Gregg Levine where he comments on how McGovern was the first candidate he ever worked for. And, also watch this special “Democracy Now!” ran on Friday.

Some choice quotes:

GORE VIDAL: You know, I was brought up in the ruling class. They hate the people. The Bush family, if you gave them sodium pentothal and asked them, you know, “What do you think about the American people?” you’ll hear such profanity as you never heard before. The American people are an obstacle. Constitution stuck us with all these elections.

CHIP BERLET: I think we threatened the leadership of the Democratic Party in a very visceral way, and I think that they felt that stopping McGovern actually might be best for the Democratic Party…

RON KOVIC: ”Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world.” And we will, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern. We will seek that newer world, and we will never allow what happened to my generation to ever happen again. We will never forget the words on that late night in Miami of 1972. Those were precious words. Those were important words.

CHIP BERLET: There were a lot of people who were threatened by George McGovern. You had the rise of the neoconservative movement. These were the Democrats who supported the war and were Cold War liberals, and they wanted him stopped. And they were also horrified by the kind of social movements that students were involved in, and here was McGovern reaching out to dissident social movements…

DICK GREGORY: Compromise wasn’t even in his psyche. And because of that, as filthy as America is today, it’s a better place because of that light. See, once the light hits, you can’t turn it off.