George McGovern: An Appreciation

George McGovernAs I write, former presidential candidate George McGovern is dying in hospice care. The South Dakota senator was famous for suffering one of the most crushing defeats in election history, carrying only Massachusetts and D.C. against Richard Nixon in 1972. ("I wanted to run for president in the worst way," he later said, "and I sure did.") But for all the ineptness of that campaign and all the wrongheadedness of some of his positions, he was the only Democratic presidential nominee of my lifetime who I admire.

Former Reasoner Bill Kauffman profiled McGovern for The American Conservative a few years ago. Here's a passage from the piece that might get across what I liked about the man:

In the home stretch of the '72 campaign, McGovern was groping toward truths that exist far beyond the cattle pens of Left and Right. "Government has become so vast and impersonal that its interests diverge more and more from the interests of ordinary citizens," he said two days before the election. "For a generation and more, the government has sought to meet our needs by multiplying its bureaucracy. Washington has taken too much in taxes from Main Street, and Main Street has received too little in return. It is not necessary to centralize power in order to solve our problems." Charging that Nixon "uncritically clings to bloated bureaucracies, both civilian and military," McGovern promised to "decentralize our system."

In the clutter and chaos of the campaign, one discerns themes that place McGovern on a whole other plane from that drab anteroom of Democratic losers, the Mondales and Dukakises and Humphreys and Kerrys. George McGovern had convictions; like Barry Goldwater in 1964, he stood for a set of ideals rooted in the American past. He spoke of open government, peace, the defense of the individual and the community against corporate power, a Congress that reasserts the power to declare war.

The easy libertarian take on the George McGovern of 1972 is that he was a sharp critic of the Vietnam War and a frequentNixon did quietly campaign for McGovern...in the primaries. defender of personal freedoms but very statist in his economics. And that's basically true, though it's worth noting that later in life, after he acquired the leasehold on a Connecticut inn, McGovern came to understand the underside of the regulatory state. "In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business," he wrote in 1992. "I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day." In more recent years, citing the same experience, he campaigned against new labor regulations.

I prefer the McGovern movement's Hunter Thompson side to its Jann Wenner side.It's tempting to romanticize the insurgency that made McGovern his party's nominee, but in fact the candidate received two unsavory boosts. One came from Nixon's operatives, who were covertly sabotaging McGovern's rivals. (McGovern, they accurately assessed, would be easier to beat in November.) The other was a set of rule changes—quotas, basically—that were aimed at making the Democratic delegations more "representative" but in fact simply skewed them in a different direction. "The true reflection of McGovernite 'populism' is the statistic that no less than 39% of the delegates to the Democratic convention have attended graduate school," Murray Rothbard complained at the time. Rothbard believed he was witnessing a "grab for power on the part of an eager new elite of graduate students and upper-middle class 'reformers,'" a thought that foreshadowed Penn Kemble's analysis of the rule changes. The "purpose of the McGovern quotas," Kemble argued, "was not to make the convention more representative of the Democratic electorate as a whole, but to favor the affluent liberals within the party and to diminish the influence of its lower-middle and working-class constituents." It's hard to imagine two men more different than Rothbard the peacenik libertarian and Kemble the Scoop Jackson socialist, but they converged on a cogent critique. If the McGovern movement was a bracing challenge to the old party bosses, it also was a sign that new establishments were waiting in the wings. 

But there was more to McGovern than that. At "its not-frequent-enough best," Kauffman writes,

I seriously love this button.McGovernism combined New Left participatory democracy with the small-town populism of the Upper Midwest. In a couple of April 1972 speeches, he seemed to second Barry Goldwater's 1968 remark to aide Karl Hess that "When the histories are written, I'll bet that the Old Right and the New Left are put down as having a lot in common and that the people in the middle will be the enemy."

"[M]ost Americans see the establishment center as an empty, decaying void that commands neither their confidence nor their love," McGovern asserted in one of the great unknown campaign speeches in American history. "It is the establishment center that has 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....It was not the American worker who designed the Vietnam war or our military machine. It was the establishment wise men, the academicians of the center. As Walter Lippmann once observed, 'There is nothing worse than a belligerent professor.'"

Four decades later, America's president is a law prof with a kill list. I'd take McGovern over Obama any day.

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  • Jordan||

    "In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business," he wrote in 1992. "I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day."

    Better late than never. Too bad he didn't come to this realization before pushing the high-carb, low-fat bullshit diet that the government will never let die.

  • Romulus Augustus||

    He is to be admired for this admission.
    Unlike today's flip floppers who pretend they didn't once have the opposite opinion or made a promise they did a 180 on.

  • PapayaSF||

    +1

  • robc||

    I think there is an even better point in there: While in may not be a constitutional requirement, vote for the guy with the business experience...preferably from small to large, not just a guy who started at the CEO level.

    In this year's race that means:

    1. Johnson
    2. Romney
    3. Obama

    (I dont know Stein's business experience)

  • robc||

    and it makes my vote for Perot in 1992 look better too.

  • robc||

    Neither Stein's wikipedia page nor her bio on her presidential website give much of her work history.

    She is a doctor and has taught internal medicine for a long time. In general, I would put a doctor above Obama, and maybe even above Romney, but I dont see evidence of a long history of private practice, like with Dr Paul.

    Of course, her enviro-weeniness knocks her down too, but I was just ranking on business experience.

  • Loki||

    Unless she has run her own private practice (IOW her own business), I'd put her above Obama but below Romney.

  • robc||

    Agreed.

    I kinda thought that is what I said, in a round-about way.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    A doctor was mayore of the town I have my business in.

    Extremely difficult and bureaucratic to deal with.

    When I first started the city demanded I put up a fancy sign - $1300 I didn't have. Now that she's gone (got elected at the provincial level), they will revisit this law.

    I'm pissed naturally. It's still on my VISA.

  • Calidissident||

    Not necessarily. Having business experience may help you understand more about the economy and the effect government policies, but it doesn't mean you will use those lessons for the force of good. There are a lot of business guys that I wouldn't want anywhere near the White House (Warren Buffet, anyone at GE, etc)

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    Better late than never. Too bad he didn't come to this realization before pushing the high-carb, low-fat bullshit diet that the government will never let die.

    ... in spite of study after study showing people who eat the most saturated fat live longer and have a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16018792
    Journal of Internal Medicine 2005 Aug;258(2):153-65
    Dietary fat intake and early mortality patterns--data from The Malmö Diet and Cancer Study.
    Leosdottir M, Nilsson PM, Nilsson JA, Månsson H, Berglund G.
    Department of Medicine, Lund University, University Hospital (UMAS), Malmö, Sweden.

  • Jordan||

    Yep. The Lipid Hypothesis rests on Ancel Keys's fraudulent study.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    America's president is a law prof with a kill list. I'd take McGovern over Obama any day.

    Money

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Line of the week-end for sure.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    No comments? Nothing to respond to! What will I do?

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    Oh, now they show up!

  • Ken Shultz||

    "Four decades later, America's president is a law prof with a kill list. I'd take McGovern over Obama any day."

    As I was reading, I was thinking the same thing myself.

    And, just for the record, I'd have taken McGovern over Bush Jr., too.

    Our leadership has been down so goddamn long that it looks like up to me.

  • ||

    I'd take a randomly selected convicted felon over Bush Jr.

  • JW||

    "I'm not dead yet!"

  • JW||

    Four decades later, America's president is a law prof with a kill list. I'd take McGovern over Obama any day.

    This.

    I know full well that mendacity in politics is nothing new, but today's pols seem to be far more crass and venal and less likely to admit fault than the pols of the 60's and 70's and before.

    Is that just nostalgia on my part or does anyone else see this happening? Even Paul Tsongas understood and admitted to the basics of economics, despite typically campaigning against them. I'm not sure if that's better or worse than outright dishonesty, but it seems a tad better.

  • John||

    McGovern was wrong. But he was an honest person who actually had the best interests of the country at heart. That seems to be pretty rare these days.

  • Drake||

    Yes - but damn was he wrong.

    And he did an excellent job of keeping his mouth shut while his own party started the war in Vietnam and screwed it up in every way possible.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    "I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day."

    Top Men need not clutter their minds with useless trivia.

  • ||

    Four decades later, America's president is a law prof with a kill list. I'd take McGovern over Obama any day.

    Over Obama? Certainly. But I'd take Carter or Clinton over McGovern.

  • PapayaSF||

    That quote about "It is not necessary to centralize power in order to solve our problems" is great and going into my file, to be tossed out at my lefty friends at appropriate times.

  • Big 'Orra||

    I really must be getting old as well but I have been missing authentic liberals lately.

    Today's progressive must REALLY suck for me to feel this way!

  • John C. Randolph||

    So, is he the last anti-war democratic nominee?

    -jcr

  • toolkien||

    While it's fine to appreciate some of the root of McGovern's viewpoint as individualistic, the naivete in terms of business was very dangerous and we live the consequences of those who thought the way he did. The US has been attacking the productive sector for decades and it is just about worn out (at least in terms of being a bastion for personal liberty). It's fine that he discovered the error of his ways, but that was 2 decades after his run. One can only guess the damage that naivete would have done. In short, we are where we are at due to the cumulative misallocations of resources for nearly a century, and those misallcoations occur because people who don't know what they are talking about get to use Force against peaceful and productive people. And they do so out of trying to do Good but are too stupid to know they are actually doing Bad. It's not a small facet of McGovern to scotch over.

  • Ed Zeppelin||

    George McGovern flew 35 combat missions over Europe in World War II. He was a B-24 Liberator pilot.

  • Jordan Zimmerman||

    Ayn Rand on George McGovern: "The worse thing said about Nixon is that he cannot be trusted, which is true: he cannot be trusted to save this country. But one thing is certain: McGovern can be trusted to destroy it."

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