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Hullabaloo


Sunday, October 21, 2012

 
George McGovern: too decent to be President

by digby

I was too young to vote for George McGovern, but I was a volunteer and I didn't know a single person under the age of 30 who was for Nixon. (I know they existed, obviously, I just didn't know them.) On the other hand, my father was a big McGovern hater, so I certainly understood that plenty of salt of the earth Americans truly loathed him (and more importantly, his followers.) Not that my father loathed me personally, of course. He just hated hippies in general.

But even at my young age I knew that this epic loss was a harbinger of bad news for the Democrats. The abandonment of the left began almost immediately --- and it has never stopped. I don't blame McGovern for this, of course. He was up against a formidable machine in the middle of a cultural shit storm and he stuck to his principles. It would have been better for the world if the Democratic Party had done the same.

Joan Walsh wrote a very nice piece about McGovern that's well worth reading. This excerpt speaks to my point above and, I think, may explain to some younger folks the dynamic that created so much of what we see today:

When I asked labor historian Jefferson Cowie in an interview whether he could identify one crucial moment in the Democratic Party’s post-’60s unraveling, I expected him to fudge like a good academic, but he surprised me; he had one: “The 1972 decision by organized labor…to destroy McGovern. Because that solidified a moment. It said, ‘We can’t work with the unions,’ to the left and to the women’s movement and the rest. It said organized labor is just about guys like George Meany, and Mayor Daley, it’s really the same monster, we can’t deal with them. And that creates a natural alliance between the New Left and the New Democrats, who were much more sympathetic to important issues of diversity than to labor.”

McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, would pioneer the idea of “New Democrats” who owed no allegiance to labor. When he ran for Senate in 1974, Hart titled his stump speech “The End of the New Deal.” That same year he proclaimed that his new generation of Democrats were not just ”a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” slandering labor’s longtime champion. A young Bill and Hillary Clinton got their start on the McGovern campaign, and it’s hard not to see the impact of McGovern’s defeat on Clinton’s careful centrism and Democratic Leadership Council politics. The DLC was formed in direct reaction to Walter Mondale’s 1984 loss, which was even more lop-sided than McGovern’s. But it was designed to eradicate McGovernism from the party – to define Democrats as tough on crime and welfare, friendly to business, hawkish on defense – everything McGovern supposedly was not. It also involved the party running away from its proud New Deal legacy, and defining itself more as what it wasn’t than what it was.

We now bemoan the loss of the labor movement in America and for good reason. But the rift between labor and the left during that earlier era deprived both of a necessary ally. Labor thought perhaps in those days that they were powerful enough that they could ally themselves with the right on cultural issues without weakening their political clout. And after the defeat of their idealism, the left thought they could co-opt business and industry for their own aims. Both were completely deluded about the reactionary nature of the American Right.

Joan sees the coming back together of the left and labor in the Obama coalition of 2008. I wonder if that's true. And even if it is, it's with a much diminished labor movement and a Party as divided as ever on issues of war and peace. It was a very costly rift.

George McGovern was a fine politician and a good man. Like Joan, I think he may have deserved a better party than the one he had.

As Perlstein says in this book review:

While the meaning of McGovern may change, clearly one thing remains: the unfair abuse of George McGovern by shameless opportunists.

RIP

Update: More from Perlstein on McGovern's passing:

Even after the landslide a novel called President McGovern's First Term held fast to the fantasy—imagining that had McGovern only run a last-minute ad inviting voters to ask, "Do I really trust Richard Nixon? ... Do I want to contribute to giving him a blank check, a license to do what he pleases for four long years?" he would have eked out a victory.

The fact that in real-life McGovern had run exactly that sort of campaign didn't deter the novelist. One of his TV commercials displayed all the headlines correctly laying the Watergate scandal on the Oval Office's doorstep—and when reporters ignored Watergate as an election issue, in an astonishing speech to a conference of UPI editors, McGovern yelled at them, calling Nixon's "the most corrupt administration in history...and every one of you in this room knows it." In another astonishing speech—well, it wasn't really a speech at all: instead, the candidate just played a recording of a Vietnam veteran saying, "I don't think the people really, really understand war and what's going on. We went into villages after they dropped napalm, and the human beings were fused together like pieces of metal that had been soldered."

If only elections could be framed as referenda on decency. If only someone shooting straight from the hip could call Americans to their better selves. If only ... then the world would change. This, more than any alleged policy extremism, was the soul of McGovernism. But Americans were not prepared to be called back to decency like that.


Read the whole thing.


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