George McGovern & Me
What the liberal lion taught me about empathy, politics, and lost causes worth waging. By Mark Katz.
Nine is an early age to be thrust into the arena of national politics. I was in the third grade when I was assigned to represent George McGovern in a mock debate against designated Nixon stand-in Gretchen Gillis. The next day, somewhere between my bus stop and the classroom, I lost the list of reasons my parents helped me compile on his behalf. Forced to free associate in front of the room, I asserted my candidate shared a first name with George Washington and tried to suggest that the “govern” of his last name was some kind of a credential unto itself. When all the ballots were counted, McGovern lost the election in Mrs. Carr’s class by a two to one margin, slightly worse than he did in the national polls. Only later in life did I confront the obvious question: did the Nixon goons break into my cubby and steal my notes?
From that day on, I felt guilty about George McGovern’s lack of support, both in Mrs. Carr’s class and in the United States of America. Having failed him, I felt connected to him and hoped with victory, he might redeem me, or I could redeem him. With Election Day just a week away, I began asking questions over dinner about presidential politics and expressed an interest in helping McGovern in the days ahead. My parents, who were both born to FDR-worshipping families and came of age as Adlai Stevenson supporters, encouraged my interest and liberal leanings and helped me enlist my Irish-twin brother Robby (age 8) to the cause as well. My older brother Bruce, then 15, was uninterested in politics per se although, as one already engaged in a lifestyle of sex and partying, was at the very least a latent Democrat. My sister Ruthie, only 5, seemed unengaged by the political dialogue, preferring to concentrate on smushing the tuna noodle casserole on her plate into a paste with her fork.
On the Saturday before Election Day, my father took Robby and me to the local Democratic office to pick up a campaign button and bumper stickers. Seeing McGovern’s name embossed and shimmering against a backdrop of red, white, and blue made the election seem real in a way the classroom debate had not. We took as many bumper stickers as the nice lady behind the desk would give us and on Monday, I took the better part of our stash to school and met Robby at recess for some grassroots campaigning. With Rob starting at one end me at the other, we worked our through the entire parking lot, placing a McGovern bumper sticker on the right rear chrome of each car. No one had explained to us that bumper stickers were different than say, windshield flyers and that as a rule, people like to put their own bumper stickers of their own choosing on their own cars. I know this for a fact because Mr. Stein, our principal, repeated this to us in stern tones in his office later that day. The next day, Election Day, we were back in his office being admonished again, this time for approaching registered voters on their way to cast their ballot in the cafeteria and beseeching them to vote for McGovern.
So let’s recap: in the first week of my fledgling political career, I blew a debate, committed an act of inept vandalism, broke a federal law against electioneering at a polling place, and had my heart broken by a noble candidate with zero chance of winning. How hard was it to predict that one day I would go on to become a professional Democratic Party operative?
Our enthusiasm for McGovern was apparent. But the more we expressed, the more our parents tried to prepare us for the outcome they knew was inevitable. I was aware McGovern was behind in the polls but all week long I clung to the idea of a late-inning, come-from-behind victory—the kind that anyone acquainted with national politics would know was impossible but that a 9-year-old who watched a lot of Yankee games could easily imagine. On the Tuesday morning of Election Day, I arrived downstairs at the kitchen table and found The New York Times. On the front page was a picture that set the tone for the day and has stayed with me for life: George McGovern in a dimly-lit hotel room, reading a newspaper and hovering over a bowl of cereal, spoon in hand. The photo’s caption specifically mentioned that there was no milk in the bowl, an odd detail for a caption on the front page of The New York Times but one that captured my attention. Staring into the photo as I consumed a milk-drenched bowl of King Vitaman cereal, I felt more connected to McGovern at that moment than I ever did. In fact, it might have been my first encounter with empathy.
Like most nine-year-olds, I had a special love for breakfast cereal. And like most emotionally-stunted adults, I still do. As a child, cereal was more than mere packaged foodstuff; it was a passion. In a world of assigned classroom seating and pre-picked matching outfits, cereal was a treasured realm of free will. The cereal aisle of Waldbaum’s supermarket was where I learned to become a consumer: a rational decision-maker exposed to a dizzying array of choices, responding consciously and subconsciously to the hundred of Saturday morning television commercials meant to mold my mind and having to finally select just one. This unnatural relationship to breakfast cereal was why the image of on the front page of the newspaper was tattooed onto my consciousness that day.
A 9-year-old (if he is lucky) knows of no worse way to start a day than to fill a bowl with cereal, open the refrigerator, reach for the milk, and immediately sense the weightlessness of the carton. Complaints registered with my mother only brought the suggestion of opening a packet of Carnation Instant Milk—a fate worse than a bowl of Wheatina. On this day, George McGovern was about to lose the election and he had no milk! But the longer I stared at the picture, the angrier I got with Nixon. In my mind, Nixon was somehow responsible for McGovern’s joyless breakfast of dry flakes—as though Nixon was the one who finished off the last of the milk.***
In 1988, at the age of 24, I had a front row seat on the McGovern-esque presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, an endeavor that still makes me enormously proud. But the final redemption of McGovernicks everywhere was when one of his top aides from that ill-fated 1972 campaign was elected president of the United States. And for me, that was when the real fun began!
Thank you, Senator George McGovern. You inspired an entire generation of Americans to spend part of their life in public service. Never let it be said that you failed.
Mark Katz is the author of Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy (Hyperion Books), from which these excerpts were taken.