Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

The best ghoulish-y song from my misspent youth: Elton John’s “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the opening track on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973).
And here’s the original studio version:


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Nailed It.

So, we did this today:

I voted for the Irish guy. No, not that Irish guy; this Irish guy:

And, by the way, spare me the kvetching. I’ve been at this a lot longer than a some of you, so you don’t get to lecture me about liberal purity. I’ve been voting in presidential elections since 1980, and never once voted for a Republican – or, for that matter, a conservative of any stripe – in any one of them. I’m not a late convert to liberalism; I grew up with it. It’s in my blood. So I’m not in the mood for lectures.
The fact is, I don’t need to defend my choice. I’ve explained it many times before, and so far, no one’s been able to come up with a compelling argument to the contrary. If you need a primer on why even liberal purists should vote for Pres. Obama, I’ll let some one who’s much smarter than I am make the case. One Bob Cesca, to be precise, in his recent takedown of Matt Stoller:
The president hasn’t been flawless, that’s for sure. But has there ever been a flawless chief executive? Stoller singles out the achievements of FDR in the wake of the Great Depression but conveniently excludes FDR’s serious flaws — a courtesy Stoller clearly offers to most Democratic presidents except for Barack Obama. But what about FDR? Not only did he prematurely compromise with conservatives to engage in austerity which caused a double-dip recession, but FDR’s record during World War II would be decimated by modern progressives were they around at the time. Indefinite detention of Japanese Americans, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, the development of the atomic bomb. I can’t imagine [Jonathan] Turley and [John] Cusack ignoring these egregious trespasses without labeling them as “Rubicon Lines.”
The rational, reasonable approach to selecting a president involves deciding which of the two candidates is nearest to our personal values, both in terms of policy and leadership qualities. From there, once elected, we have a civic responsibility to engage in smart accountability. That is, pushing and persuading our leaders to do what we believe is right. Sometimes it works, as with Obama and same-sex marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and sometimes it doesn’t. But at the end of the day, we’ve still helped to elect a leader who’s at least somewhere in the same ballpark as our personal views. We don’t have to agree on everything and we can’t expect perfection or purity. Reasonable people ought to look beyond the narrow field of pet issues and view the presidency in its totality.
Look, as a general principle, I have no beef with third-party voters. That’s because (a) I believe in democracy, so you can vote for whomever you damn well feel like voting for; and (2) I voted for a third-party candidate in my very first presidential election – John Anderson. But when I made the decision to vote for Anderson, I did so only after it was clear beyond any reasonable doubt that Ronald Reagan would trounce Jimmy Carter; had the race between Reagan and Carter been close, I would have voted for Carter in a heartbeat. And beyond that, I voted for John Anderson in the naïve hope that a successful third-party run by a likable fellow like Anderson (and by successful, I meant, I suppose, respectable – more than single digits, anyway) would lend credibility to the very idea of third parties. It would lead, I thought, to real ideological competition among multiple political parties. It would mean that real liberals like me (and maybe real conservatives, too; why not?) would have alternatives … real alternatives, not just lesser-of-two-evil alternatives.
Never mind the fact that multiple liberal parties and multiple conservative parties would most likely lead to more compromise, not more liberal success; the idea was appealing to an 18 year old liberal in the disheartening last days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
But, of course, it didn’t happen. In fact, in my lifetime no third-party candidacy, even Ross Perot’s comparably successful Reform Party forays in 1992 and 1996, has managed to break the basic two-party stranglehold on American politics. And Perot, like George Wallace in 1968, was essentially a conservative. No liberal presidential candidate has come close to establishing a viable third-party to challenge the Democrats, and none of the current crop of third-party candidates is likely to do so.
Which brings me back to what I said about liking democracy. I don’t always like the results of democracy, of course, but I like the fact that we vote in more or less free elections, and that our votes usually – (ahem) usually – determine the outcome of those elections. And so I accept the fact that right now, in our current political climate, a candidate further to the left of Barack Obama is not likely to win enough votes to become president. Period.
Guess what? That’s democracy.
Now, if you don’t like that, by all means, vote for someone else. That’s democracy, too. But one thing I learned from voting for John Anderson in 1980: My vote didn’t change anybody’s mind. It didn’t move the country further to the left. It didn’t even move the Democratic Party further to the left.
So, third-party voters, get back to me when you figure out a comprehensive strategy to do that: To persuade a significant percentage – hopefully, a majority – of our fellow voters to support a genuinely liberal candidate. That’s the real challenge.
In the meantime, in a very close election like the current one’s shaping up to be, voting for a third-party candidate, at least in any of the states that are statistically too close to call, may end up handing the election to Mitt Romney. In which case, your third-party vote may make you feel good inside, but the rest of us will feel a little queasy for the next four years.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Your Friday Clash Song: A Public Service Announcement … With Guitars!

I’m just going to say it: Hands down, the best song on that album. Easily one of the best Clash songs of all, in fact.
Damn, damn, damn:
With guitar …
Know your rights, all three of them
Number 1
You have the right not to be killed
Murder is a CRIME!
Unless it was done
By a policeman or an aristocrat
Know your rights!
And Number 2
You have the right to food money
Providing of course you
Don’t mind a little
Investigation, humiliation
And if you cross your fingers
Know your rights
These are your rights …
Number 3
You have the right to free
Speech as long as you’re not
Dumb enough to actually try it
Know your rights
These are your rights
All three of ’em
It has been suggested
In some quarters that this is not enough
Well –
Get off the streets!
Get off the streets …
All I’m going to say is, there’s an election on, and if you don’t believe one of the candidates has more respect for your rights than the other, you just haven’t been paying attention. Now, I know there are liberals who are disappointed with Pres. Obama, particularly when it comes to civil liberties. You know what? To a large extent, I feel your pain. But Pres. Obama has done a hell of a lot for the cause of civil liberties – particularly for our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors – and he’ll do whatever he can to stem the GOP’s onslaught against women’s rights, too.
Those are real, tangible results.
So, if you’re hesitant to vote for Pres. Obama because you think he’s been weak on civil liberties, consider this. You can’t trade the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans, women, recent immigrants, and people of color, for civil liberties. You can’t because it’s not right; we should never be forced to chose between civil rights and civil liberties. And you can’t because that choice isn’t on the table. The choice isn’t between civil liberties and civil rights; it’s between civil rights and neither.
When it comes to civil liberties, Mitt Romney simply won’t curtail the abuses of the current or past administrations. He just won’t. But he will curtail the civil rights advances of this administration.
Yes, he will. And you know it.
Meanwhile, if you really want to advance the cause of civil liberties, you don’t do that by electing a president who’ll make nice for four or eight years because he or she chooses to make nice, only to have the next Republican (or Democrat) come along and simply reverse course. Nope. That may be a temporary solution, but I want permanent protections for my civil liberties.
So if you really want to protect civil liberties you go to court. You sue to stop the government from trammeling people’s rights, and you get court rulings – hopefully, ultimately, from the Supreme Court – that prohibit the government from doing whatever odious thing it is you object to … now and in the future. Because that’s as close as we get to permanent protections for civil liberties: Getting a court – preferably the Supreme Court – to tell the government, The Constitution says you can’t do that.
Oh, yeah. And who picks judges in the federal system, all the way up to the Supreme Court? Yeah, that’s right.
Know your rights, people.

Damn, damn, damn.
Now: Turn. It. Up.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Screw It – I’m Voting For Him Because He’s Irish

This is why human beings suck. I’m up early during the week – the first one up in our house, usually – and so I’m cranky and sleep-deprived and most mornings I’ve had just about enough of you people and your election-related shenanigans. Is it too much to ask to log on to the Twitter machine without confronting this level of jack-assery on a daily basis?

Yes, that’s’s editor-at-large Ben Shapiro, getting all racist-y on Twitter after this morning’s announcement that Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State under George W. Bush, and National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, has endorsed Pres. Obama for reelection.
Mr. Powell explained it this way (via Eclectablog):
[N]ot only am I not comfortable with what Governor Romney is proposing for his economic plan, I have concerns about his views on foreign policy. The Governor, who was speaking on Monday night at the debate, was saying things that were quite different from what he said earlier. So I’m not quite sure which Governor Romney we would be getting with respect to foreign policy.
I mean, it’s a moving target. One day he has a certain strong view about staying in Afghanistan, but then on Monday night he agrees with the withdrawal. Same thing in Iraq. On almost every issue that was discussed on Monday night, Governor Romney agreed with the President with some nuances. But this is quite a different set of foreign policy views than he had earlier in the campaign. And my concern, which I’ve expressed previously in a public way, is that sometimes I don’t sense that he has thought through these issues as thoroughly as he should have, and he gets advice from his campaign staff that he then has to adjust to modify as he goes along.
I think there’s some very, very strong neo-conservative views that are presented by the Governor that I have some trouble with. There are other issues as well, not just the economy and foreign policy. I’m more comfortable with President Obama and his administration when it comes to issues like what are we going to do about climate, what are we going to do about immigration? What are we going to do about education? … I do not want to see the new Obamacare plan thrown off the table. It has issues, you have to fix some things in that plan. But what I see when I look at that plan is 30 million of our fellow citizens will now be covered by insurance. And I think that’s good. We’re one of the few nations in the world, with our size, population and wealth, that does not have universal health care.
All of which seems well-reasoned to me, but Mr. Shapiro’s first impression was along the lines of: Look at this guy, being all black and all, liking the other black guy! The blacks always stick up for other blacks, man!
As you might imagine, Ben Shapiro was not the only white conservative howling like a stuck pig today. If you’ve got the stomach for it, wade through the comments section of this article on Glenn Beck’s organ, The Blaze. (Heh, heh, yes, I said “organ” … .) And before I could turn off Twitter this morning, I saw at least a half-dozen other right wingers making the same basic accusation as Shapiro and The Blaze’s commenters: When African Americans endorse African Americans, why … that’s racist!
But, you know, here’s the thing. I looked into this, and it turns out that we’ve had forty-two presidents and forty-three presidential administrations prior to Barack Obama’s tenure as No. 44 (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, from 1885 to 1889 and from 1893 to 1897) … and guess what? Every one of those forty-two presidents before Barack Obama was white!
And you know what else? Every other major-party nominee has been white too, even the losers.
No, it’s true. It says so on the internet.
So, what that means is, from the country’s first presidential election in 1788 to and including the 2004 presidential election, every African American who voted in a presidential election had the choice of two white dudes, or the occasional, you know, Socialist Party candidate who happened to be black. Meaning – the real choice was always between two white dudes.
So when you say an African American, prominent or otherwise, only supports Pres. Obama because he’s black, YOU ARE AN IDIOT. African Americans have been voting for white candidates for as long as African Americans have been able to vote in this country – and that’s a subject for another blog post altogether.  So you really don’t get to accuse African American voters of being “racist” when a candidate like Barack Obama finally comes along and, lo and behold, his politics happen to align with the politics of many African Americans.
Especially when nobody bothers to ask a white voter like Ben Shapiro why he supports Mitt Romney.
Er, ah, um … that’s different!
And anyway, Ben, I’ve got news for you. Barack Obama’s Irish, too. And we Irish, man … we stick together.

Póg mo thóin, bitches!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Four-time bankruptcy-filer and racist hack Donald Trump released a video today – and no, I won’t link to it; you’ll have to get you’re winger-porn elsewhere – but watching the first few seconds of it (right up to the point where nausea set in), I knew I’d seen it somewhere before:

That’s right. The man with the Worst Hair In America has become a cheap imitation of Lorne Michaels, circa 1975. Except that Lorne Michaels, even at his worst moment (cough, coughElvis Costellocough, cough), has always been smarter and better informed than that walking punch-line.
On a side note, before you say I’m shallow for attacking Trump’s combover, understand this: As an alumnus of the University of Illinois and a long suffering Illini fan, it’s kind of personal. Many years before the combover hairstyle was known as That Thing On Donald Trump’s Head it was known as The Lou Do, after legendary Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson:

 And Lou Henson is more of a man than Donald Trump could ever hope to be. Henson is one of the few college basketball coaches in history to take two separate programs to the NCAA Final Four – New Mexico State in 1970 and Illinois in 1989 – but long before he reached national prominence he proved to be a man of towering character:
Henson didn’t shy away from recruiting black players, even before the Civil Rights movement reached college basketball. As a high school coach in Las Cruces, N.M., Henson wouldn’t accept an offer from Hardin-Simmons [University, in Abilene, Texas,] unless the college would integrate the team and therefore the school, he said.
That was forward thinking in Texas, circa 1962.
“The only way I’d come is if they integrated,’’ Henson said. “They had no blacks on the team or in the school. It’s the fair thing to do.
“When we first recruited black kids, we couldn’t even feed them in restaurants. We had to go to drive-ins and take lunches. That’s in Texas. It was much worse down in the South.’’
When Henson became head coach at New Mexico State, he recruited the South when the Southeastern Conference was slow to break the color barrier. Henson recruited center Sam Lacey from Indianola, Miss., and Lacey was eventually a first-round NBA pick after reaching the Final Four as a New Mexico State senior.
Compare that to a guy who can’t believe an African American like Barack Obama could have earned an Ivy League education and still – yes, still – questions the validity of the President’s birth certificate. (You’ll have to find today’s video on your own, but yes, in the first few seconds of it you can glean that much.)
Donald Trump: A producer of amateurish political hit-videos and a man who’s unfit to wear the Lou Do.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Empty Chair: It All Makes Sense Now

Because I’m pretty what Pres. Obama told Mitt Romney at last night’s third and final presidential debate was … Have a seat, son.
The President schooled Mittens throughout the debate, leaving little doubt that the last person we want as Commander-in-Chief is wealthy, out of touch businessman investor who knows less about foreign policy than he knows about donuts:
Gov. Romney, I’m glad you recognize al-Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical group facing America, you said Russia — not al-Qaeda. And the 1980’s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back — because the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980’s, just like the social policy of the 1950’s, and the economic policies of the 1920’s.
And that, my friends, is as coherent an explanation of this campaign as any that’s been offered by anyone to date.
This was a president who knows a thing or two about how the world works, and who’s tired of trying to explain it to a guy who, apparently, has never read anything other than finance textbooks and the business page of the Wall Street Journal:
I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships.
And, unsurprisingly, Gov. Romney’s claim that the U.S. Navy “is smaller now than at any time since 1917” is simply inaccurate. As PolitiFact noted last January:
In 1916, the U.S. Navy had 245 active ships, a number that eventually peaked during World War II, then fell, then peaked again more modestly during the Korean War, followed by a slow, consistent decline over the next five decades.
In recent years, the number of active ships has fallen low enough to approach its 1916 level. In both 2009 … and 2011, the number was 285.
The same data set shows that during the years 2005 to 2008, the number of active ships was 282, 281, 278 and 282, respectively – each of which were below the levels of 2009, 2010 and 2011. In other words, each of the final four years under George W. Bush saw lower levels of active ships than any of the three years under Obama. The number of surface warships also bottomed out in 2005 under Bush, later rising by about 10 percent under Obama.
Such figures undercut Romney’s use of the statistic as a weapon against Obama.
(Emphasis supplied, as we lawyers like to say.)
So, yeah. Our navy isn’t smaller than “at any time since 1917”; it was smaller under George W. Bush (remember him?), which should have been little embarrassing for Gov. Romney, given that he’s of the same party and all. But that assumes Gov. Romney is capable of embarrassment.
For my money, though, Mittens was at his most clueless when he turned to Iran. From his weird obsession with indicting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for what Romney calls “genocide incitation,” to his essentially meaningless blather about how he’d deal with Iran by being “stronger” and “tightening sanctions” – meaningless blather utterly debunked by Prof. Juan Cole, an actual expert in the field – Mitt was the very definition of what the great James Brown once called, talkin’ loud and sayin’ nothin’.”
Still, nothing quite matches this bit of geographical jujitsu, courtesy of the former governor who obviously couldn’t see foreign countries from his front porch:
Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.
Wait, what? Syria is Iran’s route to the sea?
Let’s take a look at the map, shall we?
 Interesting. Forget for a moment that Syria and Iran don’t actually share a border. There’s that body of water on Iran’s northern border – the Caspian Sea – which is, you know, a sea. But I assume that’s not the sea Mitt’s looking for. Then look to Iran’s south. You’ll see the Gulf of Oman, which provides access to the (ahem) Arabian Sea … and from there to the Indian Ocean. And if that’s not the sea Mitt’s looking for, note that the Arabian Sea connects to the Red Sea and, through the Suez Canal, to the Mediterranean.
Oh, but wait. What’s that other body of water right next to Iran, on its southwestern edge? Um, that’s the Persian Gulf.
And why is it called the Persian Gulf?

 They named a whole gulf after Persia, now known as Iran, because what was once Persia and is now Iran … sits on a damn gulf.
Which, it would seem, Willard Romney was unaware of.
Have a seat, son. Son, have a seat.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The New York Times Slow Jams The Binders Full Of Women Controversy

Relax, ladies. Ross Douthat’s got this.
Cue the Barry White records – or Marvin Gaye; whatev – Big Ross’s gonna mansplain it all night long:
Now that “binders full of women” has officially become the “Big Bird” of the second presidential debate — the line that the president and his surrogates are quoting on the stump, supposedly as evidence of Mitt Romney’s extremism and his back-to-the-1950s reactionary worldview — and before it’s eclipsed by something else from Monday’s looming foreign policy showdown, it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on the strangeness of how partisan psychology works during these last, lunatic days of an election cycle.
Sure, the first half of Romney’s answer may have overstated how pro-active he actually was in recruiting female candidates for positions in his Massachusetts administration, but the fact that he relied on a binder put together by a women’s group was a case study in exactly the kind of behavior that feminists, in particular, tend to argue that we need more of from executives and hiring managers.
You see, darlin’, Mittens may have “overstated” that bit about going to women’s groups and asking them to make recommendations for cabinet positions – and by overstated, I mean: it’s actually not true; he didn’t solicit that information – but sometimes, a complex man like Willard “Mitt” Romney, well, he’s gotta tell ya little white lies. But trust him; Big Ross says he’s doing it for your own good.
Yeah, Mitt’s gonna give you what you’ve been asking for:
The second half of Romney’s answer, meanwhile, was essentially an endorsement of the kind of female-friendly workplaces that featured so prominently in, say, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed call for making the work-life balance easier on working mothers. You can argue with Slaughter’s “having it all” framing (I certainly did) but the issue she’s talking about —how to help women navigate the workplace while their kids are young — is about as far from a reactionary concern as you can.
Chicks, man. They have babies. And somebody’s gotta take care of ’em.
Of course, not every working woman has kids or wants to have kids. And then, too, ordinarily it takes two people to make a baby, and, naïve as it may sound, it ought to be possible for moms and dads – or moms and moms or dads and dads – to share the responsibility of childrearing equally so that neither parent has to jettison her or his career for the little ones.
I know, I know. That’s just crazy talk. Big Ross says so:
But back in nonpartisan reality, both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers are likely to cite part-time rather than full-time work as their ideal professional situation. Not necessarily because they want to cook more meals for their children, true, but almost certainly because they like the idea of “being with them when they get home from,” just as Romney put it.
See, ladies? Big Ross gets you.
And so does Willard. He’s a man’s man. He’s not going to change anybody’s diapers or feed them mashed bananas. But he’ll make sure you can “get home at 5 o’clock so [you] can be there for making dinner for [your] kids and be[ ] with them when they get home from school.” Because that’s how he rolls.
Willard Mittens “Mitt” Romney, ladies. He’s gonna give you want you want.
And that’s a whole lotta puddin’ …

Aw, yeah!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Your Friday Clash Song: “You Can’t Live In A Home That Should Not Have Been Built …”

The best thing about doing this feature is that it gives me an excuse to go back into my record collection and listen to songs I haven’t heard in years. This is a perfect example: “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here),” an obscure track from the second of three records that comprise the Sandinista! LP, released in December 1980. It’s a haunting song about shoddily built council housing for poor workers in London:
The towers of London, these crumbling blocks
Reality estates that the hero’s got
And every hour’s marked by the chime of a clock
Whatcha gonna do when the darkness surrounds?
You can piss in the lifts which have broken down
You can watch from the debris the last bedroom light
We’re invisible here just past midnight
And the wives hate their husbands, their husbands don’t care
Their children daub slogans to prove they lived there
A giant pipe organ up in the air
You can’t live in a home which should not have been built
By the bourgeois clerks who bear no guilt
When the wind hits this building this building it tilts
One day it will surely fall to the ground …
Classic stuff from the Clash about how hard (and dangerous) it was to be poor in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and how the people in power really didn’t care. It’s a timeless theme that could easily apply to America in 2012 … and perhaps even more so in the coming years, depending on what happens November 6.
There’s something else that’s fascinating about this song, though, and that’s this quotation, which is repeated several times:
“Alianza dollars are spent

To raise the towering buildings

For the weary bones of the workers

To be strong in the morning”
Those lines come from the song “United Fruit,” by legendary American folk singer Phil Ochs. Ochs’ song, like the Clash’s “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here),” is about brutal exploitation of workers, though not in the UK. Rather, Ochs’ song talks about the mistreatment of Central American workers by United Fruit Company, “a U.S. concern, [that was] notorious for having economically colonized Central American in particular, using the support of the U.S. politically – and,  on occasion, militarily – to ensure its taking of large profits in the region.” You can hear a live version of Phil Ochs’ “United Fruit” here.
In any event, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected the Clash to reference a 1960s American folk singer in 1980. That’s kind of antithetical to punk rock … but as I’ve always said, the Clash were no ordinary punk band.
In fact, the reference to “United Fruit” dovetails perfectly with one of the major themes running through Sandinista! – American imperialism in South and Central America and the human suffering it caused. The album’s title, of course, comes from the successful revolution that deposed U.S.-backed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and several tracks on the album, including “Washington Bullets” and “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe,” speak directly to U.S. foreign policy in the region and throughout the world.
More than that, though, inserting a quotation from Phil Ochs’ song about exploited Central American workers in a song about exploited British workers reinforces the idea that these kinds of struggles are universal, and that if you care about the people of your own country you also have to care about people everywhere facing the same, or worse, problems. Like the song’s subtitle says: Not Only Here. That, too, is classic Clash.
So there you go. Another gem from The Only Band That Mattered. Now, you know what to do.
Turn. It. Up.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Your Childhood Never Dies All At Once

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.