In later years, people asked him: Why, with the Vietnam issue at the centerpiece of the 1972 campaign for president, did you not talk about the fact that you had flown a bomber in World War II and won the Distinguished Flying Cross? George McGovern never fully answered the question, but it seemed to be that like many World War II veterans, he didn’t talk much about his service because he feared it might be bragging, when in fact he thought he was just doing his duty.
And so the people running the campaign for Richard M. Nixon’s re-election sometimes branded McGovern a peacenik, or implied that he was a wimp on the war. Ridicule was their specialty, and they spared no Democrat, even one who was a decorated bomber pilot. A despicable bunch, they were, and after the Watergate break-in and during the Sam Ervin hearings and for years afterward, as more and more came to light about the Nixon crowd, we found out just how despicable.
When I cast my first vote for president, it was for George McGovern, and I took some heat for it before and after the election, even in liberal Chapel Hill. McGovern, who died last week at the age of 90, had lost every state except Massachusetts and he’d won the District of Columbia. Nixon’s landslide was of epic proportions.
I remember when I got back to my dorm after voting. “You did what?” somebody asked. “Well, you know you just wasted your vote.”
McGovern stayed in the Senate until 1981, then spent his life doing good works and writing and teaching. (He was a professor before he got into politics.)
Nixon ... well, we know what happened to Nixon. It took him a while to rehabilitate his image after resigning in disgrace, but then more information started coming out on those infamous tapes, and his image retreated again, into appropriate perspective.
Even after Watergate, McGovern was criticized in his own party because he’d headed a movement to change the rules for picking convention delegates which allowed more women and minorities to have a role in choosing presidential candidates. That ultimately helped him, of course, and the Democrats were a little contentious and disorganized for a while. Of course, the Democrats have been contentious and disorganized before and afterwards, so the blame for that doesn’t rest on the shoulders of George McGovern.
Though “our” first presidential candidate lost big, liberal folks of my generation had become a lot more energized about the whole process of electing a president because the faces we saw on the television screen at that Democratic convention included some who resembled us.
And, there was something that felt a little noble about carrying on in what you had a pretty good idea was going to be a losing cause. Perhaps it was character building.
Certainly McGovern was a good role model for that. He was the son of a Methodist minister raised in small-town South Dakota with old-fashioned values, a wholesome family life and later, the courage to confront publicly the tragedy of a daughter whose death came because of alcoholism. His conscience drove him to oppose the Vietnam war early on, long, long before the rest of the country would come to agree with him. (He supported helping Vietnam veterans.) Rare now, it seems, are those who will stand on principle even when it costs them careers, or even a few votes.
The presidential spotlight did not prove addictive (he did make another run in 1984 to promote the liberal agenda which he never gave up) and McGovern remained based in his home state, commenting occasionally, always with thoughtfulness and intelligence.
Some years ago, when he was in the Triangle promoting the Special Olympics founded by his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, I met and talked with Sargent Shriver, who after the removal of first choice Sen. Thomas Eagleton, ran as McGovern’s vice presidential candidate.
As we parted, I told him, “Mr. Ambassador, I voted for you and McGovern in ’72,” to which he just smiled and said, “Thanks! Wish more people had!”
Neither he nor McGovern did anything in the ensuing years to embarrass their causes or themselves, living and dying with their integrity and legacies intact.
I didn’t think it was a wasted vote then, and I still don’t.