by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
Oct. 24, 2012
GEORGE McGOVERN: THE LAST DEMOCRAT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I think it is safe to call George McGovern the last Democrat. The former Democratic senator from South Dakota who died Sunday at the age of 90 certainly was the last truly liberal candidate the Democratic Party nominated for president.
Certainly compared to Mitt Romney and the rest of the cretins who currently run the Republican Party, his life stands as an example of what public service and statesmanship used to look like.
Unlike Romney, who begged off military service during the Vietnam War to go to France to win converts for the Mormon faith, McGovern was a decorated bomber pilot who flew 35 combat mission in Europe in World War II.
Unlike Romney, who is as Machiavellian as they come, there has been not a hint of scandal or double-dealing ever linked to McGovern's name.
Unlike Romney, who changes his policy stands as often as he changes his magic Mormon undershorts, McGovern was proud to be a liberal, was proud of liberalism's accomplishments and stayed true to his ideals to the end of his long life.
Even in his most painful moment in politics, losing 49 of 50 states to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, McGovern remained noble in defeat and was ultimately vindicated when Nixon resigned in disgrace less than two years later under the accumulated crimes of the Watergate scandal.
I think back to 1995, just after the Republican Party of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole took control of Congress and sneered at the liberal ideals as exemplified by McGovern, I remember a piece he wrote at the time for The Washington Post. At a time when fair-weather Democrats ran and hid at the mention of his name, McGovern pinpointed why the Republicans were riding high.
"Both liberalism and the Democratic party have lost their way because, too often, Democratic politicians neither practice nor defend liberalism," he wrote.
"Instead, Democrats, like the Republicans, have yielded to entrenched special interests that determine the priorities of government, the nature of government spending, the tax laws, the federal regulatory structure and, of crucial importance, campaign contributions and political influence. The two parties have converged - and lost public respect - as each has become more and more beholden to the same well-funded and well-organized masters.''
McGovern could see that the reason for the Republican sweep in 1994 was not the result of voters who were discontented with liberalism.
Fast forward two decades, and the Democrats have moved even further away from the bedrock ideas of what the party used to stand for, while the Republicans are even more entrenched as the party of oligarchy.
While Republicans used McGovern's name as shorthand for "bleeding heart liberal loser," the Democrats dishonored him even further by making sure no candidate possessing personal integrity, moral courage, and honesty ever again won their nomination for president.
In the last 40 years we have seen a steady parade of center-right Democratic presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, none of whom possess even a sliver of the qualities that McGovern had.
Which of those three men would have spoken these words on the floor of the Senate?
"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave," he said. "This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval [hospitals] and all across our land - young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about 'bugging out,' or national honor or courage.
"It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us."
George McGovern spoke those words in 1970, when he sought to cut off funds for the Vietnam War. Although he voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution six years earlier, he came to see that vote as the biggest mistake of his political career, and a vote that he sought to atone for in trying to bring an end to the war.
Is there any man or woman in politics today who would have spoken these words upon accepting his party's presidential nomination?
"... 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.
"Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.
"Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming."
George McGovern spoke those words at 2 a.m. at the end of a chaotic 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, a convention that permanently ended the stranglehold the party bosses had on the nomination process. Unfortunately, gven the hour, many Americans never heard them.
Is there anyone in politics who could write these words without hesitation?
"During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I've been labeled a 'bleeding-heart liberal.' It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad.
"A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society's ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.'"
George McGovern wrote those words in his last book, "What It Means to Be a Democrat," published last year. His was a politics of compassion and decency, two things very much in short supply in today's political scene. And he remained engaged in that vision to the end.
As we face another presidential election that pits the unpalatable against the unthinkable, let us work toward the day when justice, fairness, and democracy will again be honored in our nation.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a prize-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). Write him at email@example.com.