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[Senator McGovern died today, Oct. 21. Hail and farewell. Our best wishes go out to all who loved him. — GAD]
George McGovern — former U.S. Senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee, whose political career was ushered out in the election that made Ronald Reagan a President but who has stayed a conscience of the party and the nation — is dying. He has entered hospice care.
“He’s coming to the end of his life,” his daughter, Ann McGovern, told The Associated Press. She declined to elaborate but noted that her 90-year-old father has suffered several health problems in the last year.
George McGovern, who became a leader of the Democrats’ liberal wing during his three decades in Congress, lost his 1972 challenge to Nixon, who later resigned amid the Watergate scandal. McGovern has turned his focus in recent years to world hunger.
A recent (ahem) drawing of me contained a number of humorous inaccuracies, such as that I have a sad-looking stuffed toy donkey on a shelf above my desk (if I had one, it wouldn’t look sad) and that I have hammer and sickle-patterned curtains (which I consider tacky) beside my desk. One nice touch, I thought, was that part of the slam on me is that I have a “McGovern ’72” poster on my wall. I wish! If I had one, I’d certainly display it.
Democrats, as a party, have spent the past 40 years running away from the specter of George McGovern’s loss, just like they spent the 1972 running away from giving him the support he’d need to compete. That is, unfortunately, what we tend to do at our worst — but not all of us. It may well be that McGovern may have pushed for some proposals at that time that I’d have considered excessive — but I also have presumed that the social forces amassed against progressive reforms, starting with the Southern Democrats who still dominated much of the party’s hierarchy on Congressional committees, would have kept him from doing anything too extreme. (I do not have that same confidence about, for example, Mitt Romney.) I think that he would have made a wonderful President — although probably, as with Obama, one who would have been constrained by political circumstances. And Nixon surely could stand to have been beaten; the Watergate burglaries and witness payoffs had already occurred, after all.
One reason that McGovern has been considered safe for centrist and conservative Democrats (as well as some liberals intent on hiding their lights under a bushel) to scorn is that he lost so badly. On that score, I’d like to share something from an interview I read with him once that I think few people know. People remember that Southern Democratic racist George Wallace ran for President in 1968 and won several states. They don’t remember as well that George Wallace also ran for President in 1972. McGovern did have a potentially winning strategy in 1972 — but it depended on Governor Wallace being able to split the conservative and right-wing populist vote with then-President Nixon.
George Wallace was shot in Laurel, Maryland (suburban metro Baltimore) on May 15, 1972. The would-be assassin was a man named Arthur Bremer. His bullet left Wallace paralyzed and out of the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination — from which, after losing, he was expected to bolt to run again with the American Independent Party. (Bremer is, I was surprised to learn, a free man of age 62 today, he was a messed-up 21-year-old janitor at the time of the shooting.)
Had Wallace not been shot, Nixon would not have been considered to be a shoo-in for the Presidency. Wallace would have likely have taken the Southern states again, as he’d done in 1968, and perhaps more. Watergate, which few knew about in 1972 unless they read the Washington Post, might have been picked up by more journalists who weren’t resigned to a Nixon victory (and concerned about retaliation.) McGovern would likely have raised a lot more money.
It’s possible that no one may have won the Electoral College. The election may well have gone to the Democratic-dominated House and the Senate. There, McGovern would have had to wheel and deal — but he was capable of that. He’d probably have been able to get a stronger VP candidate than Thomas Eagleton or Sargent Shriver — one who could unite the party in case the election did go to Congress.
That was the idea, anyway — but Wallace was shot, McGovern was abandoned by much of his party, and Nixon did — using dirty tricks, of course — win in an Electoral College landslide. Still, at the end of one’s life, would one prefer to be like Nixon or McGovern? I think that when McGovern dies — and I hope that it comes late enough for him to savor an Obama re-election victory — he’ll look back at his life without shame. That’s a pretty good thing to be able to say.