In the summer of 1972, when I was 15, I persuaded my parents to let me ride my bike down to the local George McGovern headquarters every morning to work on his campaign. McGovern, who died early Sunday morning in South Dakota at the age of 90, embodied the core values I had been taught to cherish. My father, a World War II veteran like McGovern, had taken my younger sister and me to protests in support of the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War. He taught us to stand up for human decency and honesty, no matter the cost. He told us that the definitions of business and politics, the categories of winners and losers, of the powerful and the powerless, of the rich and the poor, are meaningless if the price for admission requires that you sell your soul. And he told us something that the whole country, many years later, now knows: that George McGovern was a good man.
McGovern, even before he ran for president, held heroic stature for us. In 1970 he attached to a military procurement bill the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, which would have required, through a cutoff of funding, a withdrawal of all American forces from Indochina. The amendment did not pass, although the majority of Americans supported it. McGovern denounced on the Senate floor the politicians who, by refusing to support the amendment, prolonged the war. We instantly understood the words he spoke. They were the words of a preacher.
“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.”
McGovern’s moral condemnation was greeted in the chamber with stunned silence. When one senator told McGovern he was personally offended by his remarks, McGovern answered: “That’s what I meant to do.”
Here was a politician who cared more for his country and for human decency than he did for his political ambitions or his career. Here was someone I could believe in. I, at 15 years old, was not about to lose this moment. I stuffed envelopes, handed out fliers and made phone calls until my dialing fingers were red and swollen. That was the summer of my political awakening. It taught me about the venal nature of power, the clever lies used by the power elite to manipulate the masses, and the deep fear and loathing these elites have of those, like McGovern, who possess the personal integrity and moral courage to speak the truth. The business titans, the generals, the defense contractors, the wealthy, Richard Nixon and the Democratic Party establishment set out to destroy McGovern. They failed.
The tiny campaign headquarters in Hamburg, N.Y., was chronically short of money. We survived on pizza. Workers slept on the floor. I mingled that summer with angry Vietnam veterans, hippies, anti-war activists, union organizers and feminists. Tattered copies of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Soul on Ice,” “The Other America” and “The Wretched of the Earth” were shoved into my hands by older campaign workers. None of us, until that summer, had a voice in Democratic or national politics. And the Democratic establishment, once that summer ended, rewrote the nomination rules to make sure none of us ever had a voice again.
When the 1972 Democratic convention, the first and last open political convention in American history, took place in July at the Miami Beach Convention Center, I was being sullenly dragged to New Mexico for our family vacation. Our Nimrod popup camper had been set up in the desert at Ghost Ranch. I was determined to hear McGovern’s nomination and his acceptance speech. I took the keys to my father’s Impala, lay down on the front seat looking up at the canopy of stars and followed the chaotic and glorious convention on the radio. McGovern spoke at 2 a.m. in Miami. It was midnight in New Mexico. He closed with these words:
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.
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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, for “this is your land, this land is my land—from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters—this land was made for you and me.”
So let us close on this note: May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.
And now is the time to meet that challenge.
Good night, and Godspeed to you all.
And then the battery on my father’s Impala went dead. My father, the next morning, walked down the dirt road to find someone with jumper cables.
The history books will tell you Richard Nixon won the 1972 election, that George McGovern went down to the worst defeat of any presidential candidate in history. But those who write history do not take into account the moral or the good, what is right or what is wrong, what endures and what does not. And even the historians have to acknowledge that Nixon’s victory was attained by lies and fraudulent propaganda, by dirty tricks, by state crimes and acts of theft and burglary. Nixon, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, may have embodied the “successful” politician but he “was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions.”
“George McGovern, for all his mistakes… ,” Thompson went on, “understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose…. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”
I had dinner in New York a few years ago with McGovern and Rick MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. McGovern and I spoke about our experience in war and the lies, deceit and empty patriotism used by politicians and war profiteers to sustain war, of our life as the sons of preachers and of the time each of us had spent as seminary students. I told him about the summer I spent working for him, about the thrill of hearing his acceptance speech and about exhausting the battery of my father’s Impala. I told him he had set the ethical and intellectual standards by which I had attempted to live my own life. He mentioned, ruefully, the loss of 49 states.
“Senator,” I said. “You never betrayed that 15-year-old boy.”