Where's George now? After the break...
When America was sinking deeper and deeper into a disastrous war under a powerful and ruthless Democratic President, where was George McGovern? He was a first-term United States Senator from South Dakota, one of 98 who had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964. By early 1965, however, he was convinced that the war was wrong, and joined Senators Gruening and Morse, the only two Senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, along with fellow converts to the cause, Fulbright and Church, in opposing the war. It was no half-hearted, cautious opposition, either. After returning from a tour of Vietnam in early '65, McGovern announced he was ready,
"not merely to dissent, but to crusade - to join peace marches, sign petitions, lecture across the nation, appear on television, to do whatever might persuade the Congress and the American people to stop the horror.
Lyndon Johnson was unimpressed. Char Miller writes in the Texas Observer:
With equal masculine bravado, the president disdained those who challenged his actions in Vietnam; for him, doves were men who had to squat to pee. He would discover their potency soon enough. In early February 1965, for instance, Johnson cavalierly dismissed Senator George McGovern's early misgivings about Vietnam because he believed he was merely mouthing the ideas of another misguided senator, Idaho's Frank Church; neither should be taken seriously, he told McGeorge Bundy, because "neither one of them really fought in many wars."
McGovern was not intimidated. When Johnson began to carpet bomb North Vietnam, McGovern stood up to his party's leader. It's "a policy of madness," he said.
When the Democratic Party was in complete disarray in 1968 after Johnson's withdrawal from the race, Bobby Kennedy's assassination and the debacle of the '68 Convention, where was George McGovern? He became the chairman of the McGovern Commission and led it to enact extraordinary reforms opening the party to minorities, women and the young. Mark Stricherz reviewed the results of McGovern's work early in the 2004 Presidential election cycle:
Some conservative pundits have lately been chortling over the prospect of a McGovern-style debacle in 2004. But the point of the McGovern commission wasn't to win elections, but to transform the party. As McGovern himself says today of his commission's work, "I'm not saying we'd get a better presidential nominee. It just means that whoever we nominate would go through a democratic process. Democracy has always been a gamble, and if we make mistakes, at least they are our mistakes."
When Richard Nixon's 1968 promises of peace had produced four more years of war and ended hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese, Cambodian and American lives, where was George McGovern? He was running as a no-compromise antiwar candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The newly open nomination process and thousands of "McGovern Kids" helped propel him to the nomination which he accepted in a powerful speech centered on a theme borrowed from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day.
There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North.
And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong...
...From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America
From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.
From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle hands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick -- come home, America.
Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.
Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this "is your land, this land is my land -- from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters -- this land was made for you and me."
It was the high point of a campaign that was plagued by its own missteps, Nixonic manipulation, a complacent media and an uninformed public. Ever since, "McGovern" and "McGovernite" have become pejorative terms employed by the Right to ridicule principled Democrats and by Democrats who urge politics over principle. This cynical analysis ignores that for once in its history, America had a major political party that was committed to openness in its process and peace and justice in its policies, a "Bright Shining Moment" that lasted only briefly before politics as usual resumed. The 1972 election had indeed been "Nixon 49, America 1," made even more so by the distorted understanding of it pushed by the panderers and the placaters.
When new madmen had been installed in the White House--as McGovern says, another set of "old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in"--where was George McGovern? He was speaking out against the Iraq invasion in March, 2003 when many fellow Democrats were falling over themselves to praise it--and he was warning that things would even get worse:
The chance of Iraq attacking the U.S. is about the same as attack from Mars," McGovern said. "Everybody knows Osama bin Laden was the man who conceived the 9-11 attack, but by harping on this, (the Bush administration) has gradually convinced 51 percent of the American people that Saddam was behind it...Even now, [additional] wars [against Iran and North Korea] are being planned by the current administration," McGovern said. "I'm positive, based on conversations with people close to the White House, that plans are in place for the next invasions."
One of those "next invasions" is just around the corner and has the potential to be even more catastrophic than Vietnam or Iraq. Where is George McGovern? He's still speaking out against the Bush administration and its war-mongering. This week on Wednesday, it was in a debate against J.C. Watts in California:
Not only does McGovern think troops should be withdrawn from Iraq as soon as possible, he is certain that sending more troops to "finish the job" there would result in only more U.S. military loss from sectarian bombings.
"Every time things got rough there, we sent more troops," McGovern argued. "The more we sent, the more the Viet Cong recruited. And we saw more than 58,000 casualties. It was a losing proposition."
I was 18 and full of hope when I first canvassed for George McGovern in the 1972 Massachusetts Democratic primary. Political events in the United States have left me jaded to the point that I gave up on the country after 2004 and left. But not George McGovern. After all that he has been through, all the ridicule and scorn he has endured even from his own party, he is still that same man who returned from Vietnam in 1965 to proclaim he was ready:
not merely to dissent, but to crusade - to join peace marches, sign petitions, lecture across the nation, appear on television, to do whatever might persuade the Congress and the American people to stop the horror.
Some will say that since I have left the country, I have no right to offer my opinion on American politics. But surely, no one will say that by emigrating I have forfeited my right to dream. In these times that are so perilous not just for the United States but for the whole world, my wish is that the people of South Dakota had been wise enough to continue sending George McGovern to the U. S. Senate until this very day. We need George McGovern, not just speaking on college campuses and writing for progressive journals, but in the Senate chamber, rising with that unique combination of humility and strength that he has, and leading--if necessary shaming--his fellow Democrats to once again make the Democratic Party the party of peace.
UPDATE: Thanks to SusanG for the recommend. For those interested in learning more about McGovern and how the modern Democratic Party came to be, check out today's diary, "'With George McGovern as President': Dem History 101"