George McGovern: An Appreciation

The Democrats' 1972 nominee is dying.


As 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.

Nixon did quietly campaign for McGovern…in the primaries.

The easy libertarian take on the George McGovern of 1972 is that he was a sharp critic of the Vietnam War and a frequent 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.
Rolling Stone

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.