Friday, November 02, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #79 - Part 5

RIP George McGovern

George McGovern, former member of Congress, former Senator, 1972 Democratic candidate for president, and long-time advocate for peace and against hunger, died this past weekend at the age of 90.

George McGovern was the first presidential candidate I voted for. I can safely say that he is the only major-party presidential candidate for who I voted without a mountain of reservations. That doesn't mean I agreed with everything he said, of course, but it does mean that I felt confident that I could trust in his basic sense of decency, of honesty, and in his commitment to justice. Now, 40 years later, I have no reason to change that assessment.

I found it disappointing but hardly surprising that most every bit of coverage of his death, even the obituary, started with his loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential campaign - and a fair amount never got past that. Yes, Nixon ran up the biggest electoral college margin ever, yes, that needed to be mentioned, but why did so many act like the 1972 campaign was all there was to the man? Just a moment or two ago I mentioned the media covering elections like sporting events. Was that part of what drove this? Was this just a way of dismissing those, like McGovern in 1972, dismissing those who focus on facts as opposed to fantasies, issues as opposed to image, a way of dismissing one of those who strike our modern, blase, sneering media elites as latter-day Don Quixotes adopting a chivalry, a nobility, that no longer exists?

McGovern, by his own admission, failed to recognize how important image was even by 1972. This son of the prairie of South Dakota was pegged as some kind of hippie by the Republicans, something his campaign never really challenged. I doubt more than a fraction of the voters were aware that McGovern had flown 35 combat mission in World War II as the pilot of a B-24 and had received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

But leave that aside and rather than ask what people then might not have known, ask what people now reading the coverage of his death still wouldn't know. They might know that he was an early and vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War and they might know that in 1969 he introduced the first legislative attempt to end that war. They might know that, if only because it got connected to reasons that he lost so badly in 1972. (Interestingly, I didn't see Watergate mentioned once.) So yes, they might know that.

But they wouldn't know that he wrote or co-wrote 14 books, the last of them in 2011. They wouldn't know that his concern for Native American rights was sufficient that the Oglala Sioux dubbed him "the Great White Eagle." They wouldn't know that he and Bob Dole were the co-sponsors of the Senate bill that created the Food Stamp program as we came to know it.

They wouldn't know that even more than Vietnam, hunger was the issue that drove him. He was the first director of the Food for Peace program and helped establish the UN's World Food Program. He was the first chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Later, after leaving the Senate, he became the US Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. He created, working again with Bob Dole, the International Food for Education and Nutrition Program. In 2001, he was named the first UN Global Ambassador on World Hunger by the World Food Program, the program he helped create.

No, people would not have know any of this - because the media was too busy trying to reinforce the image of the hippie loser.

But the fact is, he was neither. I would have thought it nice if he was more of the former, but be that as it may, he was by no means the latter.

During the floor debate on that first bill he introduced to end the Vietnam war, in 1969, he said this:
Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land — young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
That's the George McGovern I remember, the George McGovern I voted for: the man who knew the meaning of the word conscience and never sold his.

History, it's often and rightly said, is written by the winners. But for that very reason, history often is about winners and losers and most of the time fails to address what endures. Conscience endures.

RIP George McGovern.


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