Robert Shrum on Friend George McGovern, the Prophet Politician
When I was first called and told that George McGovern was in hospice care, I was overwhelmed with sadness. Yes, at 90, he had lived a long and extraordinary life, but when I talked with him in recent years, he was tirelessly immersed in public events, acutely insightful, a political leader retired from office though never from caring or speaking out. He had an undiminished sense of the possible, and how to push the boundaries. In him, that combination was not always seen or credited—in part because he was so genuinely principled, and of course because he so decisively lost in 1972.
So I think of him, and will write of him here, as a great undaunted man, often intentionally misunderstood, caricatured by opponents on the right and inside his own party, but who nonetheless lifted the vision of the nation—and in his friend Robert Kennedy’s phrase, “made better the life of the world.”
I am not an objective observer. He was a shining and shaping force in my life. He trusted me to help with his acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination when I was still in my 20s and had come to his campaign only weeks before the convention. He taught me about foreign policy and farm policy, and how to sip a vodka martini. When I worked for him in the Senate, he and his wife, Eleanor, one of the sharpest and sweetest people I ever met, took me on my first European trip, and then again to Asia. It’s a journey that has never ended and without them might never have started.
In his last gift of public service, as the American ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome under President Clinton, and for a while even under President George W. Bush, George and Eleanor happily let me guide them around museums and churches—and restaurants—I’m certain they had been to before. It was a reprise of my days there more than two decades earlier, when we were on our way home from India, Pakistan, and Vietnam, and they changed our stopover from London to the Eternal City because I so yearned to see it. My wife, Marylouise, who loved to cook risotto for George as much as he loved to eat it, more than once said he was a second father to me. In that, I was not alone.
In the mid-1970s, when George had many years ahead of him, and far more to give, I decided to write a book called Losers about presidential candidates who, despite defeat and the blame that inevitably follows, had moved America forward in transformational ways. George would have been the concluding chapter. I sat down with one of the leading publishers in New York who dismissed the idea. Nobody, he said, wants to read about losers. Then he wondered if I’d be interested in ghostwriting a book for Nixon attorney general and Watergate criminal John Mitchell. I wasn’t and I doubt Mitchell would have been interested in me.
When I told George, he laughed. Maybe I could refute “our” speeches on the Watergate cover-up during the ’72 election. The irony was that George had been entirely right then, and his criticisms had been largely dismissed. President Nixon might have been impeached, but George was still written off as history’s biggest loser.
History itself has bigger claims and a longer view. George, who bridled at being labeled a isolationist or an extremist—he was neither, but he was only human—also had a certain equanimity about the stereotype, a belief that what he had cared for, stood for, and accomplished mattered more than what was said about him. But in death if not in life, he deserves a fair accounting of who he truly was, and the differences he made.
For example, his famous 1972 call to “Come Home, America,” smeared then by Nixon’s henchmen and since then by the neocons as a slogan of weakness, a policy of withdrawal from the world, was in reality a summons to honor defining American values and national interest. It surely was a demand to end the Vietnam War but also to pursue a “just and decent” activism abroad that in the end would strengthen our national security—and our claim to be the “last, best hope of earth.” For this, the decorated bomber pilot of World War II was reviled by the campaign of someone who had spent those dangerous years playing poker in the South Pacific. But the standard George raised has a lasting and fateful relevance. How much better off we would be now if his warning to refuse the wrong war and instead rebuild our own country had been heeded as the Bush administration plotted to plunge into Iraq.
George was as right about Vietnam as he was about Watergate. And another caricature hurled at him in 1972—that he favored “acid, amnesty, and abortion”—is in retrospect a partial libel, but in the main a tribute. He never favored the legalization of hard drugs. But amnesty for those who in conscience could not serve in Vietnam, which he saw as an essential part of healing the wounds of war, was granted within four years by President Carter. And a woman’s right to chose was secured by the Supreme Court just months after George lost 49 states.
He also changed forever the way we nominate presidential candidates. The McGovern Commission he led reformed the process, breaking the grip of party bosses and ceding the power to voters in primaries and caucuses. He secured fair representation for women and racial and ethnic minorities that now encompasses LGBT Americans too. He put the people back in the party, and he’s the reason the Democratic Party looks like America. The McGovern model has been tweaked, but it remains fundamentally the same, and it’s been adopted by Republicans as well as Democrats.
George could achieve this, and more that I will honor him for here, because of perhaps the least noticed truth about him. He was a great politician. He was a college professor first elected to Congress in conservative South Dakota in the Eisenhower sweep of 1956. But there were lines he wouldn’t cross even if it was politically prudent. He lost his first bid for the Senate in 1960 because he spurned the advice to avoid a campaign stop with John F. Kennedy, who was deeply unpopular in the state. (Eighteen years on, facing a tough re-election campaign, the one he would finally lose, George would reject similar counsel of caution to address an openly gay political organization in Los Angeles. He was the first United States senator ever to do so.)
After the 1960 election, the president-elect called him and said: “Hi, George. This is Jack. I’m terribly sorry I cost you that Senate seat.” Kennedy then appointed him director of the new White House Office of Food for Peace.
The episode forged his friendship with Bobby Kennedy, and soon after Teddy, and it left him with a lifelong passion to end the plague of hunger in the world and the shame of hunger in America. He took that passion with him when he won a Senate seat two years later by a mere 597 votes. He would be elected three times in all, a remarkable record in a state that usually disagreed with him but respected his authenticity and the steadfastness of his beliefs. He turned his vulnerability into an asset.
As he declared for president in 1972 against one of the strongest primary fields in the modern era, he seemed to have few assets. Starting out far behind, in single digits, he triumphed as the anti-war candidate; he also maneuvered adroitly in states like Wisconsin, where he appealed to blue-collar voters with a proposal for property tax reform. He had a masterful strategy, and he assembled a masterful organization of the young and the talented.
George was unlucky too—and in politics, genius is often luck. He wasn’t going to beat Nixon, but the contest could have been much closer. And he might have survived to run the next time. Then he selected his running mate, Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, in the way it was customarily done then—with a few questions and no formal vetting. The choice blew up when the press reported that Eagleton, who had offered the reassurance that there was nothing embarrassing in his background, had undergone a series of shock treatments for depression. Eagleton was replaced; George fell 20 points behind and stayed there. The collateral result was the elaborate process for picking a vice-presidential nominee that has prevailed ever since. It’s one legacy George would have preferred not to create.
It’s telling that in the 2012 campaign, the stronger position on abortion and women’s issues is the one he had 40 years ago. He was ahead of his time, and he was a reshaping influence on our times.
He not only opposed the Vietnam War but afterward proposed the reconciliation that was delayed until the 1990s. Gerald Ford might have gone for it—he discussed it with George—but flatly ruled it out 10 days after Ronald Reagan announced a challenge to Ford’s renomination.
George advocated normalization of relations with China in a series of lectures in 1951, at the height of the Korean War. He did it again to far more attention—the lectures had provoked only a venomous response in the local newspaper—on the Senate floor in 1966, during the escalation of the Vietnam War. He called for an end to the embargo on Cuba a decade later and twice visited the island to meet Fidel Castro.
Review what I have recounted so far: events have proved him correct, as they will on Cuba. He was to a very real degree the politician as prophet. He had no meanness, but there was steel in his convictions. He Senate colleagues squirmed in 1970 as he reproved them before a vote on setting a deadline to withdraw from Vietnam: “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.”
Yet he could work with those on the other side, including the usually intractable right-wing senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. George made peace with Nixon, who had plotted to blame him for the shooting of George Wallace, and visited Nixon’s home in New Jersey. George McGovern never yielded in his beliefs, but he never hated either. Indeed he treasured his relationship with the conservative icon Bill Buckley, whom he debated repeatedly on Firing Line. For one taping of the show in 1984, the team of McGovern and Shrum bested Buckley and George Will, persuading an audience at the Yale Political Union to vote for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan. After the election, Buckley said the same thing both to George and me: “As Yale goes, so goes Minnesota.” George joyfully repeated the line.
It was his inner core that made him a torchbearer of ideals. But it was his temperament, his respect for others, that let him collaborate with Bob Dole to save and expand the Food Stamp Program. Millions of people in America who may not remember his name will not go hungry today because of George—and others half a world away are alive and whose children are alive because of his service from Food for Peace from 1961 to 2001, when he resigned as ambassador to the U.N. food agency.
His is a dual legacy, of ideas and of so many individuals he brought into politics who stayed to make their own mark.
There was his proposal for tax simplification—lowering rates and closing loopholes—which predated the reform Reagan negotiated with the Democrats by 14 years. The notion is still at the center of campaign conversation today, in the bastardized form Mitt Romney exploits to conceal his giveaways to the wealthy. George would be the first to denounce it; as he once said: “Money made by money should be taxed at the same rate as money made by men.”
Those who enlisted with George in 1972 constitute a legion of significance in our national life, foremost among them the young Yale Law student who was our co-campaign manager in Texas, Bill Clinton, along with friend Hillary Rodham. As president, Clinton would cast himself as a centrist Democrat, and George sometimes thought he was wrong, for example, on gay rights and the Defense of Marriage Act. (Clinton now thinks he was wrong too.) But George was also fiercely loyal to Clinton and quietly proud that he had started out in the McGovern campaign, in one of the toughest and most hopeless states.
I have been fortunate. Two leaders were at the center of my life in politics. I was graced by their friendship and the privilege of a place in their campaigns and their causes. Ted Kennedy was the greatest senator in a century, and maybe ever. George McGovern served in the Senate for a little more than a third as long, but he too had a singular greatness. He too changed America—and brought us close to the best America.
I will never forget what happened as the 1972 landslide poured in on us. I walked into the candidate’s suite where he was standing over the sink, shaving. His assistant Jeff Smith, who ran the traveling party, was crying. George put down his razor and said: “Jeff, it’s OK. It’s OK. We’ll wake up in the morning and our lives will go on.” Jeff choked back his tears and replied: “That’s easy for you to say.”
It wasn’t, of course. And things weren’t always easy for him, in politics or in a life where he lost two adult children, his daughter Terry and son Steve. He spent his last years without his Eleanor. But he got up in the morning, and for him life didn’t just go on. He made it count, in his youth and his age, in office and out, in victory and defeat.
People close to George admired him because he held himself to a higher standard. We loved him for the person he was.
It has been used as a term of derision, but I will always be proud to be a McGovernite.