George McGovern was right on all the issues that mattered most, then and now, and he should have become president. He campaigned on ending the Vietnam War right away, believed that everyone should have the basics in life, and fought for equal rights for women and racial minorities.
Instead, McGovern lost the 1972 presidential election to Richard Nixon, perhaps the most corrupt and loathsome man to ever occupy the Oval Office, 61 to 37 percent, one of the biggest landslides in history. I can’t help but think how the world might be better if Americans had instead elected McGovern, a hero in World War II who sought to end war.
Yet, in many ways, McGovern won because his beliefs prevailed. The Vietnam War finally ended three years later. Nixon enacted the basic structure of McGovern’s anti-poverty program. And fate was exceedingly kind in letting McGovern witness the election of a man of African ancestry to the office denied to him, while those who blocked the way, George Wallace, Strom Thurmond and others, died without seeing what true American equality looked like. And history, the final actuary, will remember McGovern as a principled man while the guy who got the most votes that year is justly reviled.
Some of the most decent human beings to have ever populated the halls of our Congress – Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy – admired McGovern as their moral beacon. His contemporaries, of course, are all long gone. McGovern during his 90 incredible years outlived his friends and adversaries, leaving none of his peers to mourn or eulogize him. So it’s up to the rest of us to honor this true American hero.
The first vote I ever cast for president was for McGovern in the primary. I’m ashamed to say that before the general election I wavered under the influence of the right-wing propaganda machine that McGovern somehow stood against America’s best interests. In the end, I cast my vote for McGovern. Some might call it an act of futility since he was swept 49 states to one by Nixon. Nonetheless, I am proud of that vote.
When the Watergate scandal broke loose, many liberals like myself pasted bumper stickers on their cars saying, “DON’T BLAME ME. I VOTED FOR MCGOVERN.” Twenty-nine million Americans could proudly declare that we had refused to vote for the man who shamed his office and our great nation, that we instead had supported an honorable man never touched by scandal.
In the intervening years, I learned to recognize and despise the right-wing propaganda machine that echoed through my head and made me doubt my support for McGovern. Later, I saw the same smears and accusations of lack of patriotism lobbed against Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. Then I saw a return to Nixon’s mendacity when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took our country to war based on cleverly assembled lies. After that, I felt ashamed of millions of my fellow Americans who made unfounded attacks against Barack Obama. I wrote a book, The Obama Haters: Behind the Right-Wing Campaign of Lies, Innuendo & Racism, to expose their methods, but even the truth won’t change the minds of those who tragically are willing to be manipulated by extremists.
On the verge of the 2012 election, the same forces are at play now as 40 years ago when I voted for the first time. By taking the oath of office, Obama has fulfilled many of McGovern’s dreams. As president, Obama has carried out programs that befit McGovern, such as access to health care and student loans for the poor, ending misguided overseas wars, and treating all Americans with respect and dignity. Obama was a child when McGovern sought the presidency. His opponent, Mitt Romney, was old enough to vote in 1972, but he supported Nixon. Romney protested against the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, but he did not have the courage of his convictions – like John McCain, John Kerry, and Al Gore – to wear his country’s uniform in Vietnam. Romney thought Bush’s war in Iraq was just dandy, but did not send any of his five sons to combat.
Obama, like McGovern before him, devotes his efforts toward an America with opportunity for all Americans. Romney’s life, by contrast, is a running narrative of others doing all the work and making all the sacrifices with Romney getting all the money. Romney’s taped confession showing disdain for 47 percent of Americans is a throwback to the Nixon tapes which demonstrated similar contempt for everyone who disagreed with him.
Obama, like McGovern, wants an America with opportunity for all Americans. By contrast, Romney’s taped confession about disdain for 47 percent of Americans is a throwback to the Nixon tapes which showed similar contempt for everyone who disagreed with him.
Have we learned anything in the 40 years since the Nixon-McGovern race? Which of those two legacies will we honor on November 6, 2012?