I returned Tuesday from several days in Washington, D.C., and a celebration of former Sen. George McGovern's 85th birthday and reunion of his 1972 campaign staff.
The reunion was a reminder, among other things, of how quickly the clock moves forward. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was there. So was Gary Hart, who would become a senator and presidential candidate in his own right, and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, at that time a staff member in McGovern's South Dakota office. Hart and I recalled hiring an eager Bill Clinton, fresh from Oxford, and sending him to Texas as an organizer. Hillary Rodham also worked in the campaign but I was unaware of it until later.
McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts to President Richard Nixon. Yet, as two-time loser Adlai Stevenson before him, his supporters would succeed later at all levels of politics. Many of those attending had held senior appointments in the Carter and Clinton administrations.
During the 1960s, serving as Hubert Humphrey's assistant, I came to know and admire McGovern, his next-door neighbor in suburban Maryland. The Humphrey and McGovern children's handprints were imprinted on the sidewalk between their homes.
In 1971 I urged Humphrey not to undertake another presidential candidacy and joined McGovern when he took the then-unprecedented step of declaring his candidacy six months before the actual election year. McGovern, among all candidates, was most committed to ending the Vietnam War, which Nixon unaccountably had prolonged after his narrow 1968 victory over Humphrey.
I was a volunteer during the nominating campaign and drew a nominal salary in the general campaign, when I was platform and policy director. No one in the campaign was paid more than $3,000 per month -- in contrast to the seven-figure fees being paid to today's consultants and managers. McGovern campaigners were in it, win or lose, because we were committed to a cause larger than ourselves. (Salaries were higher in the Muskie campaign, which was the venue for those seeking to attach themselves to a front-runner.) Characteristically, the two principal organizers of last weekend's reunion were Teresa Petrovic and David Aylward, campaign alumni who did it as volunteers and as a labor of love.
McGovern has not followed the path of other former presidents and presidential candidates and harvested big fees on the lecture circuit. Instead, he has continued to pursue his long crusade against global hunger, serving for a time as the Clinton administration's ambassador to the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.
Hovering over our reunion was the fact of today's Iraq war. Although the Vietnam and Iraq interventions are different, they in their endgame stages are alike in two respects. First, an incumbent president is being forced by public and congressional opinion to devise a disengagement that will not become a debacle. Second, there are no viable alternatives to disengagement, only questions of how and when.
Nixon adviser Henry Kissinger declared in October 1972 that "peace was at hand" in Vietnam. Most voters believed the claim. They would learn only later that it was false and that the Nixon victory had been made possible, in part, by dirty tricks against Democratic candidates. Nixon himself was involved in the Watergate scandal and cover-up as well as illegal domestic surveillance and break-ins directed toward war critics. These tactics continued in 1973-74. My campaign colleague and later business partner, Frank Mankiewicz, and I were targets of some of them. McGovern's campaign, if error-plagued, was nonetheless honorable and devoid of dirty tactics.
McGovern, at 85, is part of the departing political generation that fought in World War II (McGovern was a bomber pilot in Europe), knew Depression firsthand and was animated more by a public agenda than by personal ambition. Another member of that generation and a fellow crusader against hunger, former Sen. Bob Dole, co-sponsored a symposium at the reunion.
McGovern recognized and recalled the names of campaign workers he had not seen in 35 years. We, in turn, showered him and each other with affection. We had helped nominate a long-shot candidate and tried to end a mistaken war. Together again, all were energized and ready to reassume our 1972 roles.
McGovern's hopeful idealism, even innocence, was both his political strength and weakness. Let us hope that his spirit, rather than Nixon's cynicism, will in the end prevail as we move beyond these dismal political times.
© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer