Media

Come Home Again, America

George McGovern, subject of a new documentary, discusses the bright and shining moments of his 1972 presidential campaign and how it changed politics forever.
In 1972 at the age of 23, I packed all my belongings in a used van and drove to Mexico. In the high desert mountains of San Miguel Allende, I created an idyllic life for myself, paying $30 a month to live with other would-be artists and yoga folk, buying fresh produce every day in the mercado. But I still read the International Time Magazine and the International Tribune, and I began to learn about a little-known senator from South Dakota, who was exceeding expectations and actually winning Democratic primaries.

In addition to his pledge to begin withdrawing US troops from Vietnam on Inauguration Day, George McGovern was for universal health care, a guaranteed minimum income, and tax reform. Not only that, his grassroots campaign wasn't controlled by party bosses or professionals.

I couldn't resist. I left paradise and drove back to the States in time to work the last two primaries in California and New York and the convention in Miami. As a reward for my efforts I was given the job of running California's most conservative Democratic assembly district in southeast Los Angeles County, consisting of a few Latinos, a lot of Humphrey-loving unionists and, to the right of them, Wallace folks.

I was asked to win 37 percent of the vote. Without a university, a community college or a single affluent neighborhood in the region, and using a canvassing army of mostly high school students, that's exactly what we did. Unfortunately, that's all the campaign got nationally, losing to Richard Nixon 49 states to one. In our campaign office in Downey, we wept.

A decorated World War II bomber pilot, George McGovern ran the Food for Peace Program under John Kennedy and represented South Dakota for two terms in the House and three terms in the Senate. He's written nine books, including his most recent, Ending Hunger Now: A Challenge to Persons of Faith. The late Robert Kennedy described McGovern as the most decent man he'd ever met in politics. A documentary about the campaign, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, is now playing in select theaters.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: How did you end up running for president?

GEORGE MCGOVERN: I was a junior senator from a little state with only three electoral votes. I would not have been compelled to get into that race for the presidency were it not for my anguish over what seemed to me to be an outrageously mistaken war in Vietnam. So that was the driving force that brought me into the race.

TM: Nixon had beaten Humphrey in 1968. Though you'd voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which you say is the decision you most regret in your life, you were an opponent of the war from the start. Was it just that as you looked around prior to 1972, you said to yourself, 'Someone's got to do it'?

GM: That's right. I felt that the case had not been made among the Democratic presidential hopefuls, and that somebody had to do so. We couldn't simply say, 'We're for the war, but we can run it better than the Republicans.' That didn't wash with me and I don't think it would have with the American people. Obviously the Vietnam issue was not the only issue, but it was the transcendent one, and it was tearing this country apart. I honestly believed that until we terminated our mistaken involvement in that war in Southeast Asia, that we weren't going to really be able to address the other problems facing the country.

TM: Your campaign and the reforms the McGovern Commission instituted in the nomination and convention process have been at least partially blamed for the failures of the Democratic party ever since. Is there any truth to that?

GM: It's a total fiction. Those reforms were mandated by the delegates to the 1968 convention. They knew that the party was in a mess -- that what was coming across on television was the picture of a party split across the middle over the war and other issues. Something had to be done to change the way we were picking presidential nominating delegates.

In a number of states, not more than 10 percent of the delegates who were going to nominate our presidential candidate were women, even though in every state women were slightly more than 50 percent of the voting public. There were almost no people under 30 on those delegations that went to the 1968 convention. Very few blacks, very few Hispanics. All across the board what you had was a convention largely of middle-aged, middle-class men.

Now I'm not against people like that -- I was one myself at that time -- but I don't think they ought to dominate the presidential nominating process to the exclusion of women and young people and minorities. That's not the way American democracy is supposed to work. These people who say those reforms ruined the Democratic Party don't know what they're talking about.

TM: Let's talk about the lessons of 1972 for the present. What do you think of the current anti-war movement, both outside and inside the political parties -- as both Republicans and the Democrats in the Senate call for Iraqi forces to take the lead next year and for the Bush administration to lay out a strategy for ending the war.

GM: I think that's all to the good and I'm glad it's happening. It's long overdue. This war is going nowhere, we never should have gotten in there. I don't think you should send young Americans out to die in a foreign country unless America's national security is on the line; unless it's essential to the safety and defense of America.

Iraq had a miserable dictator in charge of the country, but he had done nothing against us and was no threat to us. We can't send the American army into every country where they have political problems and hope that we can set things aright. We don't have the power or the responsibility to do that. So I'm glad that even since this last election a year ago, I have clearly seen a weakening of support. People are beginning to think it was a mistake, and I think both parties are now looking for opportunities to make a graceful exit out of that mistaken war.

TM: Nixon was elected in 1968 with a secret plan to end the war. Would you be afraid that some of these moves are intended merely to shore up support for the Republicans in 2006, to take the thunder from those who oppose the war in the Democratic Party or further to the left - that they may slightly reduce the quagmire rather than truly change it?

GM: I think some people are motivated exactly by those considerations. They don't want to admit they were wrong in supporting our entry into this war, but they want a face-saving way to get out of something that they see no end to. I don't think the American people are going to buy that. They saw that Nixon's secret plan to end the war lasted for four years, during which 40 percent of all the Americans who died in the Vietnam War were killed. Almost half of all our casualties in that war took place after Nixon said he had a secret plan to end it. Only after four more years of fighting and killing and bombing, Congress finally forced him to terminate our involvement there.

TM: As you point out in the film, he could have done as you pledged to do and begun the withdrawal on the day he was elected. Nothing was gained by the four more years.

GM: I don't go for these secret plans. That may be the earmarks of a police state, it's not the earmarks of a democracy. I think the American people ought to be told the facts and the president ought to lay out a plan for disengagement.

TM: Let me read a few paragraphs from the acceptance speech you made at the Democratic Convention in 1972:
This is the time for truth, not falsehood. ...I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors.
I want those doors opened and I want that war closed. And I make these pledges above all others: the doors of government will be opened, and that war will be closed.
...It is the time for this land to become again a witness to the world for what is just and noble in human affairs. It is time to live more with faith and less with fear, with an abiding confidence that can sweep away the strongest barriers between us and teach us that we are truly brothers and sisters.
From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America.
From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.
From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick -- come home, America.
Those were your words in 1972. Could you reflect on them now in 2005?

GM: It makes me sad to hear those words spoken so eloquently by you because when I spoke them it was three o'clock in the morning, and 95 percent of the television audience was in bed sound asleep. My mother saw and heard me, my wife, and the delegates on the convention floor. That was one of the tragic errors in that 1972 convention. We let primetime television and radio get away from us. That speech should have been delivered about nine or ten o'clock when we had 80 or 90 million people watching.

TM: Isn't it chilling to see deception, secrecy, tax privilege -- all these issues 33 years later!

GM: I've been looking through a book of my major speeches of 1972. It's called "An American Journey," published (by Random House) right after the 1972 campaign. I was looking up a couple of references and I started reading those speeches, and they're as relevant today as when they were delivered in July 1972. We've got very much the same problems -- no adequate health care, no just tax system, no straightforward discussion of the central problems of the country, an unwise war. You'd think that nothing had happened.

TM: Watching your campaign in the movie, it struck me not as a fluke but as a natural outgrowth of the civil rights and student movements and of anti-war activism. It made sense that the grassroots would enter into electoral politics in a big way.

It looks from the present as if America tried it once, inventing as it went along, and losing to a ruthless, experienced and wealthy team, many of whom ended up doing jail time. Yet, rather than working to get better at it, we've never had another campaign like it. It's held up as a failure to be avoided at all costs. If you were talking to a 23-year-old today, what would you tell him or her about how to bring that kind of authentic grassroots power to life again and how not to let it die this time?

GM: First of all tell the truth. That was the key ingredient of the 1972 campaign. People were convinced that I was speaking the truth. They didn't argue that I was always right on everything, but they knew that I was proclaiming what I thought was right. I was giving it my best effort to get at the bottom of the central problems before the country, and then speak straight out what I thought ought to be the solutions.

It's true we lost that campaign but it triggered in American politics the birth of all kinds of political movements that are still with us. That campaign of 1972 wasn't a complete failure. We did force an end to the war in Vietnam. Six months after the election Nixon was on the way out of office, Agnew had already resigned, many people as you pointed out were brought to justice and sent off to prison. None of those things happened to anybody in my campaign in 1972. It was an honorable, straightforward campaign.

We lost but that doesn't mean that we sacrificed things that were fundamental. We stayed with the truth, we stayed with integrity.
Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org), where he interviews people he believes can help create 'a world that just might work.'
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