Peter Beinart's out with a book about American hubris in foreign policy, trying to pick up some points by admitting that he just might possibly have gotten a few things wrong about the Iraq War. In doing so he tries to pour himself into the mold of other foreign policy pundits who have come to realize their previous positions were in error, but claim that they've figured it out so we should all listen to them now.
But where people like Beinart draw the line in their mea culpas is in giving credit to the people who were right in the first place. It's the Francis Fukuyamas and the Colin Powells who get the accolades in his book; men whose ideas and ambitions made them useful to others intent on pursuing misguided ventures. The people who opposed stupid wars in the first place get short shrift.
One of those men, George Stanley McGovern, will turn 88 on Monday.
McGovern, a former US Representative and Senator from South Dakota, the head of President Kennedy's Food for Peace program, and most notably the 1972 Democratic candidate for President of the United States is probably used to getting short shrift nearly forty years after his crushing loss to Richard Nixon. Democrats have used his name as a touchstone of "loser" politics ever since. (Walter Mondale actually got fewer electoral votes in 1984).
Then again, remember that the guy he lost to was Richard Nixon, who not only had to resign before he was impeached over attempts to cover up a break-in into Democratic party headquarters, but by the time he was out of office his vice president had resigned on wholly unrelated matters, his re-election campaign manager (and former attorney general) was on his way to prison, and so were his chief of staff, assistant for domestic affairs, and counsel (among others).
McGovern's first speech in the Senate in 1963 addressed America's "Castro fixation". Forty-seven years later, and Fidel's still alive (presumably) having not only outlasted ten presidents but outlived six of them.
McGovern advocated admitting China into the UN during his first House race in the 1950s and pushed for relations again as a Senator in the mid-'60s. "Only Nixon could go to China" goes the saying, but the fact of the matter is that the reason fit was true was because Richard Nixon would call anyone else who went to China a dirty communist. It's a lot easier to be the first one through the door if you stick an axe into the people ahead of you.
And, of course, there's the Vietnam War. McGovern wrote that he voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution because he was told it was necessary for President Johnson's re-election campaign against Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964, but spoke against further involvement in Vietnam the next day; which my own senator, Wayne Morse of Oregon, called "very interesting, but belated". (He's not a perfect man, witness his more recent bone-headed stand against the Employee Free Choice Act.) Still, he was a strong voice against both the build-up and maintenance of the war through the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
Personally, I think it's as much McGovern's anti-militaristic stand as his loss to one of the greatest swindlers ever to win the presidency that makes people view the swindler and his political descendents as foreign policy gurus. Nixon lost the war! He may not have thought it was winnable but he sure as hell tried for four years. McGovern didn't think it was worth fighting in the first place. You tell me who's the foreign policy expert there. But it's Nixon's books and the people that cut their teeth in the Nixon administration that "serious" people turn to for advice.
People say McGovern lost because he wasn't "tough" enough. But I think it took a pretty tough guy to win a Distinguished Flying Cross flying bombers in WWII. It took a pretty tough guy to advocate relations with China just a couple of years after American and Chinese troops faced each other down in Korea, especially when running for office in South Dakota. I've read that opposing Lyndon Johnson could be tough. Frankly, after all of the posturing and strutting from people over the past forty or fifty years, I'd like to see some of the actual toughness represented by people like George McGovern.
And while we're on the subject of faux toughness: McGovern's alma mater and home, Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, celebrates its 125th anniversary this fall, with an appearance at the Blue & White Bash at the world-famous Corn Palace by The Village People.