It’s a slow, painful process.
As I sit down to write this, former Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, is on his deathbed, unresponsive. I don’t know if he’ll be alive by the time I hit “publish.”
His death, when it comes, won’t be personal to me. I’ve known death in a very personal way, having lost two brothers and both parents over the past 21 years. When you hit 50, it’s virtually impossible not to have known death in a very personal way. This is the phase of life where you watch people you love fade, where you say goodbye so often you start to feel a little numb, and where you watch your children come to grips with death for the first time in their lives … which, in some ways, is the worst part of it.
Nonetheless, Sen. McGovern’s passing will affect me on some level, because he was inextricably tied to my youth and to the nascent sense of political and social awareness I was developing at the time he rose to national prominence. I was ten years old when George McGovern lost the presidential election to soon-to-be-disgraced Richard Milhous Nixon, an overwhelming electoral defeat that’s become what McGovern’s primarily known for. But to my family and the millions who supported him, he was much more than the results of a single election.
These days, it’s not that difficult to find a brief summary of George McGovern’s public life. Newspapers and media outlets around the country are preparing his obituary; so, a quick Google search garners loads of results. The online edition of today’s Chicago Tribune includes one such pre-obituary, tracing McGovern’s history from World War II bomber pilot to member of Congress, presidential nominee, and beyond:
… McGovern’s legacy stretches well beyond his terms in Congress and presidential bids, to social issues including world hunger and AIDS, said Donald Simmons, director of the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota.
“Outside of the U.S., he is known for his real humanitarian efforts and I think that will be one of his greatest long term legacies,” Simmons said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
McGovern became a campaigner for world food issues in his post-politics life, often joining former Senator Bob Dole in his work. He wrote several books, including an autobiography, the story of his daughter’s struggle with alcoholism, and “What it Means to Be a Democrat” released last year.
In 1972 when George McGovern won the Democratic Party’s nomination, it was in utter disarray. The party had always been more populist than liberal, and when Lyndon Johnson tried to fight an unnecessary war, purportedly against communists, in Vietnam – a cause that ordinarily would appeal to the populist mentality – while supporting the civil rights of minorities at home – a cause largely antithetical to populists at the time – the result was a schism between the party’s old-line, largely conservative populists and its new, younger liberals. Johnson himself was either unwilling or unable to keep those factions together, tragically wedded as he was to the mistake in Vietnam yet equally wedded to the civil rights movement. Bridging that gap required a kind of political legerdemain that even a master politician like Lyndon Baines Johnson did not possess.
So, Johnson simply walked away from the 1968 presidential contest, allowing the Democratic Party to collapse on itself.
Four years later, George McGovern inherited a party that had been abandoned by a large portion of its former demographic, the fundamentally conservative populists who may have favored the party’s pro-union, anti-big-business stance but who vehemently opposed integrated schools, open housing, voting rights, and so on. Those Democratic voters may have continued to support the party in state and local elections, but, on the national level, they would not support a liberal who opposed the Vietnam war and embraced the civil rights movement, even when that liberal became the party’s presidential nominee. With such a truncated base of voters in the 1972 presidential election, George McGovern was doomed to fail.
But McGovern’s loss wasn’t the end of Democratic Party. To the contrary, shed of segregationists and William Jennings Bryan-style populists, the Democratic Party under McGovern and afterwards found its true identity in American politics. It became, albeit imperfectly, an actual liberal political party in a country that never really had a truly liberal tradition. The Democratic Party of George McGovern and his successors became the party of the civil rights movement, not the party that opposed it. It became a coalition of union members who could see past the labor movement’s history of racial discrimination; of African Americans and women; of immigrants; of the poor; of ethnic, racial and religious minorities; of environmentalists; of liberal Christians and Jews, not to mention Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and non-traditional religious folk of all stripes. Eventually, the Democratic Party became the party of LGBT rights, too.
It took a man like George McGovern, a man of enormous conviction, to step into the breach in 1972, to redefine the Democratic Party as the voice of liberal America, even though to do so meant almost certain failure. Because the party could no longer straddle the divisions that arose during Johnson’s tenure, and the only way forward was, well, forward.
And so it was in that context that I started becoming aware of politics and social activism. It was watching George McGovern going down to an historical defeat – historical both in terms of the magnitude of the loss, and the long term, ultimately positive, results of McGovern’s candidacy – that taught me the first and probably harshest lesson of politics, which is that sometimes you have to lose to make a difference.
Not that I really understood that at 10 years old. But that’s when it began to sink in.
I realized today that my youth began to die almost as soon as I left home for the University of Illinois in the fall of 1980. That December, John Lennon was murdered in New York City, an event that was just as jarring as people say it was. From that point on, the passing of cultural icons, heroes, devils, institutions and trends was a common occurrence, from the demise of the vinyl LP to the deaths of Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash, and on and on like a constant drumbeat saying: You’re getting older … older … older … older.
The immanent death of George McGovern is just one more of those events, but it’s a poignant one for those of us who came of age in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, whose native tongue is not so much English or Spanish but the language of cynicism. George McGovern was the ultimate idealist, not altogether unlike John Lennon, Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash, all of whom likewise died and took a part of my youth with them. He showed more dignity in losing an election than most presidents ever show, even in their greatest triumphs. I don’t think there will ever be another politician like him in my lifetime. There certainly wasn’t anyone else quite like him when I was a young.