WASHINGTON - Thirty-five years ago, with the United States riven by an unpopular armed conflict in a faraway land, the Democratic Party responded by nominating for president its most vocal antiwar candidate: George McGovern.
The parallels between the fight he led against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the effort now being waged by many in the room to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq was a major theme of the evening.
"Don't stop fighting for peace in Iraq!" activist Medea Benjamin shouted at one point above the din of chatter among the crowd of about 200.
Benjamin, who said that as a college student in Boston she volunteered for McGovern's 1972 campaign against President Nixon, went on to help found Code Pink, a women-initiated group that opposes the Iraq war.
Said Benjamin: "We need another McGovern now more than ever."
The event was timed to celebrate McGovern's birthday; he turns 85 Thursday. Held at the Cannon House Office Building, it was sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). Although not biologically related to the guest of honor, there's a strong political link - Rep. McGovern long has been one of the harshest critics of the Iraq war.
"You were so right, George," the congressman said as he took his turn at the microphone to praise the former South Dakota senator. "You were right then, and you were right today."
Rep. McGovern, 47, was not quite a teenager when George McGovern ran for president, but he made himself part of the effort. "I put bumper stickers on people's cars - even if they didn't want them," he said.
He also recalled election night. "I was so excited when the Massachusetts returns came in, but then there was the rest of the country. And I said, ' ... I did my job right.' "
His comment elicited a rueful laugh from his audience.
George McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in one of the most sweeping electoral routs in American history.
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco was one of several Democratic lawmakers in attendance; she wore a McGovern campaign button she borrowed from an aide.
Ticking off the names of some of her most liberal colleagues whose political careers were inspired in large part by McGovern's candidacy, she said, "Thank you, George McGovern.... The beat goes on."
McGovern, clad in a peach-colored sports coat, spent much of the evening anchored in one spot; those who wanted to converse with him slowly orbited around him.
Friends say he's often subdued these days. His wife of 63 years, Eleanor, died in January.
When it was time for him to say a few words, he was introduced by his old campaign manager - a then-unknown aide who helped McGovern snare his party's nomination against rivals who initially were far better-known and better-positioned politically.
That aide, Gary Hart, was elected U.S. senator in Colorado in 1974, and 10 years later launched his own improbable presidential campaign.
"Here is a man who on the issue of war and peace ... has been the humanitarian voice of the Democratic Party," Hart said, to a roar of applause.
McGovern spoke for about 10 minutes. He told his listeners they had made this birthday one of the best he'd had in years. He said of those who had worked for him, "You folks have brought more pride to my life than I can tell you."
He mentioned his wife: "There's one thing I know for sure; if we had won that election, Eleanor would have become the most beloved first lady."
He ended his remarks by reading a few lines from the concession speech he gave on a November day in 1972.
"If we have pushed the day of peace just one day closer, it was worth the entire sacrifice."
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times