The Last Best Liberal 

George McGovern gets his second wind

George McGovern drives down Main Street in Stevensville in an old blue Suburu with a cracked windshield, his glossy black Newfoundland Ursa along for the ride. He steers diagonally in to the curb in front of the bookstore and parks. He wears an overcoat and a scarf and a beaver felt fedora. Now 80 years old, he looks less and less recognizably like the man you might remember from his most photographed period, just over thirty years ago. He’s lost some of the height and the once-prominent nose and chin have softened back into the landscape of his face. His eyes are still intense under his heavy forehead, and when something tickles him, Ursa maybe, they twinkle behind his glasses.

He ambles into the store, greets its single employee and agrees to sit in a chair near the window for better photographic light. He talks graciously for an hour and a half about some of the things that are important to him. He engages questions with every appearance of frankness and interest, drawing on a wealth of experience, but he seems more professor than orator. He is impressive, but he is not larger than life.

Such a conversation could go on for days, but for reductionist purposes, George McGovern’s fundamental concerns for the betterment of humanity—and you better believe he believes it can be bettered—can be boiled down to two playground-simple rules: Nobody gets hit, everybody gets fed. He ran for president on that in 1972, and he came closer than most.

He should have won. He sure had the name for it.

Thirty years ago, an established, vocal and fragmented political left was increasingly dismayed by a presidency, Richard M. Nixon’s, that broadcast the appearance of disdainful one-man rule from the White House. Liberal America was already deep into culture-quaking protests over the conduct of war in Vietnam. And there, almost miraculously, with dramatically unpopular Nixon up for reelection in 1972, was George McGovern to vote for: the Democratic Senator from staunchly Republican South Dakota, a preacher’s eldest son, seminary student, professor of history, Kennedy appointee.

He campaigned on immediate withdrawal from Vietnam and a job-guarantee program at home. He was pro-women’s rights, pro-marijuana decriminalization. Wags described the platform as “ass, grass, amnesty and abortion.” They loved him on campus.

If anybody could have bandaged the wounds of 1972, surely, hindsight insists, it was George McGovern.

He was described, in account after account, as a Good Man, an experienced populist, a rural scholar, running against an incumbent who scared the bejesus out of everyone who didn’t vote for him and more than a few who did.

For those who invested themselves in his candidacy—and he so strongly tapped in to the energies of a mass of bright kids that they were not-quite-jokingly called the McGovern Army—McGovern’s unlikely-from-the-start grassroots campaign was a watershed event in the political life of the nation.

What if he had beaten Nixon?

Nixon, of course, kicked him like a bad dog in the general election. McGovern took one state, not even his own.

Everything that could have gone wrong did. For some reason he gave his speech accepting the Democratic nomination at 3 a.m., missing the opportunity to address a primetime TV audience still largely unfamiliar with the essential, integral moderateness of the surging liberal upstart.

There was also the matter of his lack of charisma. In his book on the 1972 conventions, St. George and the Godfather, Norman Mailer probed McGovern’s essential dullness with rival Eugene McCarthy.

“I like McGovern,” Mailer’s alter-ego Aquarius admits, “but I just wish he spoke with a little metaphor from time to time.”

“Methodists,” McCarthy replies, “are not much on metaphor.”

And then there was the Eagleton affair. McGovern took on a stolid-seeming vice presidential running mate in Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, who failed to reveal a secret history of electro-shock therapy before accepting the call. When the news broke, McGovern immediately and publicly declared himself “a thousand percent behind Eagleton” before finally being forced, by public pressure, to bounce Eagleton from the ticket. The turnabout branded him a waffler in the public mind.

His press man Richard Dougherty wrote a memoir of the ’72 campaign titled “Goodbye, Mr. Christian,” in which the debacle was described as “the worst disaster in the history of American politics.”

McGovern won’t answer whether he thinks that dishonorific might have been surpassed by the contested 2000 presidential race.

“That’s an embarassing question to ask me, I better just say goodbye on that note.”

And he does.

He is right of course. I have crossed a line, been too casual, presumed upon his grandfatherly generosity. He is, after all, Sen. George McGovern, and he came close enough to ruling the free world to taste it. And a man—even a man universally acclaimed for his bland niceness—does not get close enough to taste the presidency by suffering fools gladly.

“It was often said,” wrote Dougherty, “that McGovern was decent. Well, he is decent, but not all that decent…I know I’m dealing with a climber of my own breed. I know how smart a smart rube can be, how tough, how cunning, how indomitable…”

He is polite, but now he is gone.

He was so close to the inviolate respect that would have been his as president—the same respect that would have been due any American president before Nixon, and that has been denied every American president since.

All the same, the embarrassing question seems relevant, since here we are, three decades later, and a marginalized, vocal and fragmented political left is again dismayed at a presidency, George W. Bush’s, that broadcasts the appearance of disdainful one-man rule from the White House. This same left, without the help of a daily body count, is beginning to find traction protesting a seemingly imminent American invasion of Iraq.

And somehow here again is George McGovern, back in demand, apparently the closest thing in the land to a prominent Democrat willing to call a spade a spade.

George McGovern isn’t running for anything. He can say anything he wants. And here he is, riding a second wind in Stevensville, saying pretty much the same things he said 30 years ago: Stop hitting. Feed the hungry.

“Can you imagine? He was in Washington D.C. last week and his plane didn’t get in until one o’clock in the morning and here he is.” This is Pat, who manages the bookstore. It’s 11:55 Saturday morning and there indeed is McGovern, wearing a smart gray suit, a deep blue shirt and a patterned yellow tie, walking into the store spooning ice cream from a waxed-paper Coca-Cola cup.

“Now this, then that peace rally in Missoula tomorrow. Poor guy, he didn’t have this much when he was 50.”

But it’s good for him, she says. When McGovern is on a schedule, one thing after another, he looks refreshed, looks alert, alive.

If he’s been hanging around Stevensville—where he and wife Eleanor have lived off and more recently on for the past six years—for three long months with not so much to do, she says, you can see the age creep back into his face.

He thrives on the activity, she figures. “It’s like oxygen.”

The bookstore is called McGovern’s, and it’s his, shingle hung out on Main Street between an espresso shop and a trinket store. A grizzled skinny longhair carpenter says he built McGovern’s house and did some rehab work on this shop too, spent many an afternoon sitting on the porch with George talking about World War II and Vietnam and stuff. Says six years ago you’d be lucky to find a car parked on Main Street Stevensville, much less an espresso shop.

McGovern greets the carpenter as he walks in and immediately they are agreed in their hope that “this stupid war” be averted.

The bookstore is airy and spacious and lightly stocked, with thin specialties in history, westerns, regional titles and remaindered books by and about George McGovern. He’s written a few. A Time of War, A Time of Peace; Grassroots: The Autobiography; War Against Want; Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism; The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time. A farm boy at heart, he also edited a tome called Agricultural Thought in the Twentieth Century.

The bookstore opened in September with a coffee shop and ice cream bar in back, but today that’s curtained off to provide a backdrop for the local public television cameramen who are taping on location for C-Span. The event is a booksigning with two authors: George McGovern and Bill Gibson, the lauded combat filmmaker and author of the recently published No Film in My Camera. The two sit side by side at a long table and behind them is a shelf with books for signing. Gibson’s is up there, and McGovern is represented by Terry and The Third Freedom. Perhaps both have a hand in Stephen Ambrose’s The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45. Both McGovern and Gibson flew B-24 bombers in World War II, McGovern as a pilot on 35 missions. Both are members in full standing of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation.

Maybe 15 people sit in maybe 40 chairs, not counting the cameramen and a reporter or two. Maybe a fifth of the customers display military insignia: a jacket, a memorial patch, an embroidered cap. They’ve come to ask about the planes, and to hear war stories.

There is a brief, awkward introductory session, during which a woman with red hair and fringed white cowboy boots tries to direct the conversation towards some indiscernible point, and then McGovern pulls rank and opens the floor to booksigning, since “that’s what these people came for.”

McGovern has made it passingly clear that he opposes the impending war with Iraq. He called the prospect “unfortunate.” He prefaced his remarks with an acknowledgement that it was just one man’s opinion, but he thought invasion a very bad idea.

He did not, in front of military men, call a military action stupid, and he made a point of his pride of place in the good war, the just one, the war we all agreed on. He has been a politician, after all, for over fifty years.

In December, Harper’s published a solicited essay by George McGovern titled, with his steadfast fondness for colon constructions, “The Case for Liberalism: A Defense of the Future Against the Past,” in which McGovern argued for a resurgence of liberal ideals and the pressing need for a new generation of liberal standard-bearers. Liberalism as a political philosophy, he argues (however much the word has been maligned in the years since Nixon), is the vital progressive force in the march of humanity’s better nature towards dominance over its worst instincts.

It is to some extent a preacher’s argument. Yes, Saddam Hussein is an evil S.O.B., but evil has always existed and will always exist and it should not necessarily be our nation’s job to enter battle with it wherever we may find it around the world.

“I wrote that article,” he says, “because I think that practically every gain that this country has made in the last 200 years has been at the initiative of liberals, usually over the opposition of conservatives…I think the liberals have been out in front and that’s where I want to be.”

It’s a place hardly anybody else wants to go. At least since George Herbert Walker Bush demonized Michael Dukakis as a card-carrying member of the liberal A.C.L.U. in conjunction with footage that made the Massachusetts governor look like a toy poodle driving a stolen tank, the designation has been largely the preserve of left-of-left spoiler candidates like Ralph Nader, isolated legislators like the late Paul Wellstone, and grandfathered leftovers like Ted Kennedy.

The pendulum, McGovern says, has swung too far to the right, and it needs a juicing from the left to come back into balance. Who might juice it, he does not say. He is polite, but not enthusiastic, about the announced possibility of a run by his 1972 campaign manager, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.

What’s most remarkable about the Harper’s essay is that McGovern, of all people, should have been called upon to submit it in the first place. He is, after all, the most famous, most thoroughly defeated loser in the history of Democratic party politics.

Next to Jimmy Carter, perhaps, he is also the elder conscience of the Democratic Party. Carter earned his eminence as a humanitarian, building shelter and talking peace. Like Carter, McGovern treads the humanitarian path, in the similarly Christly cause of hunger. He is presently pushing a proposal, in bi-partisan conjunction with former Sen. Bob Dole, for a United Nations program to deliver nutritious school lunches to every schoolchild on earth who needs one. Like Carter, he has transcended his liberality, and his political shortcomings, with unimpeachable morality.

But he never had the platform Carter had, never held the presidency. McGovern earned his eminence the hard way: He was martyred for it.

But with elected Democrats largely acquiescent to a “wartime” president’s direction, and a slowly spreading miasma of potential 2004 candidates whose highest name recognition is shared between the Unelectably Reverend Al Sharpton and a presumably penitent Hart, there has appeared a black hole in the liberal leadership universe. With the unfathomable gravity of politics, it’s sucking George McGovern back in.

First Harper’s, then an appointment in D.C. with MSNBC, now this taping for C-SPAN, a Sunday noon peace rally in Missoula, a scheduled interview on CNN’s Larry King Live.

To confirm his renewed stature he’s even been blamed, in a February New York Daily News editorial, for engineering the reduction of the Democratic party to the fragmented and fickle special-interest archipelago that its recent ineffectiveness suggests it has become. The theory is that when McGovern and Hart redistributed the power of traditional party bosses to the grassroots networks in the ’72 primary, they encouraged an untethered drift to the too-far left, from which quarrelsome fringe the party has yet to return.

McGovern doesn’t quite agree. First of all, he thinks the problem with the Democratic party is that it’s drifted too far to the right over the last three decades. And though what used to be the liberal wing is well fractured, it was hardly George McGovern who ran it to ground.

“There were two great events in international and national affairs that split the Democratic party right down the middle. The first one was civil rights…The second divisive element was the Vietnam War. That divided this country as it had not been divided since the Civil War…those things split the Democratic vote badly, and we’ve never recovered from it.”

Add to this, McGovern argues, a defeatism born of recent beatings at the polls, and the Democrats are demoralized and disoriented.

Somebody needed to set them back on the path, and nobody else has stepped up to do it.

“I think the liberals are too timid, They’ve just lost a number of elections, including the last one…and the interpretation I think of too many liberals is that that means we were just too far from the mainstream, we’ve got to get back in the middle of the road. Don’t rock the boat on Iraq, don’t rock the boat on tax deductions of any kind, no matter who they go to.

“I think we need to be told that it makes no sense to grant a 1.4 trillion reduction in taxes for the wealthiest people in this country and then announce that we don’t have enough money to provide prescription drugs for old people. I think it’s wrong for a great country like this to provide big tax giveaways to the people that least need it, then shortchange the schools, the health care, the environment….”

He’s got a few things to say about this war, too.

The thickest plank of McGovern’s 1972 platform, the one that carried the weight, was anti-war. George McGovern was the first member of the U.S. Senate to explicitly denounce U.S. policy in Indochina, and it’s safe to assume that were he still in the Senate, he would have been the first to denounce the Bush administration’s plans in Iraq. But as it stands, McGovern is no longer an elected official, and his opposition, and whatever influence it may have, comes now from the mouth of an elder statesman, a World War II hero, the collective imagination’s anti-Nixon transported into this anxious echo of belligerent Nixonian daydreams.

On Sunday morning in Missoula, the day after millions have gathered around the globe to be counted for peace, thousands more gather at Caras Park on the banks of the Clark Fork to be counted again. The drummers and sign-carriers are out in force, the Higgins Steet Bridge a hiving line of marchers from the University: the Women in Black, Students for Peace, Missoula Pastors for Peace, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, thousands affiliated and otherwise.

Walking onto the plaza, a Navy veteran, as crisply attired as increasing girth allows, holds a sign reading “United We Stand.” There is an awkward clearing on the path around him, like one that might open up around a bad smell; nobody’s quite sure what side he’s on.

The Jeannette Rankin Peace Center’s Anita Doyle introduces McGovern as the first presidential candidate age allowed her to vote for, in 1972, and the statesman takes to the stage in a gray twill overcoat and what looks like the same brown fedora. It is his first anti-war speech in thirty years.

The gray ponytails in this crowd must know him well, having been inspired, as Doyle was, when everyone was younger than they are today. The newer activist blood of today’s gooey left likely sees only a nice old man, wearing the clothes of an earlier age, quoting the sages of bygone eras, and exuding the strange, musty mien of a shy preacher. He sings “Jesus loves all the little children,” for Christ’s sake.

The young may have heard of him, but likely as not mistake him for Edmund Muskie, or Hubert Humphrey, or Eugene McCarthy or Henry Wallace or even George Wallace—vestigial political footnotes from a misunderstood past.

It makes for an odd but easy match—the kids don’t know he’s staunchly pro-GMO, for instance—but no matter, all are here to speak and be spoken to on the subject of war, and as long as everyone’s against it, everything’s cool.

McGovern makes a joke about joining the drumming, and the audience delights at the preacher’s continuing outreach toward his now neo-hippie constituency, standing in such sharp contrast to any joke Nixon might ever have made, or Bush.

He speaks with notes, the same stuff he’s been saying for thirty years, or waiting, apparently, for someone to ask: swords into ploughshares, how many lunches could you buy with the cost of one Stealth bomber? It’s a very good question, but thirty years later, it is still not an answer.

He invokes the heavy sadness of watching B-24 bombers, containing crews with whom he’d only recently breakfasted, shot out of the German sky. He affirms again his pride in that war, which was necessary, he says, “to save civilization.”

This war, he says, is not necessary at all.

“When I hear the brash war cry of our young and I think well-meaning president—inexperienced, filled with the sense of power that comes to a Commander-in-Chief in this country—when I hear those brash words from this man and the Vice President Dick Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice the National Security Advisor, I know that I’m hearing the words of people who’ve never been near a battlefield.”

The crowd erupts, and for a moment, under gray clouds, the scene looks almost like one of those black and white photographs in one of those out of print books chronicling the 1972 election: McGovern addressing his army of reason. It’s almost like those thirty years never happened, like he never got stomped by Nixon, like he, and the things he believes in, still have a chance.

But of course that’s not what happened at all, and if the things he believes in are going to stand a chance, his Democrats, or someone’s, are going to have to find a fresh standard-bearer.

McGovern, Good Man that he is, couldn’t beat his Nixon. This crowd is looking—or should be—for someone to beat theirs.

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