George McGovern, who died Sunday at 90, was a decent guy, an anti-war candidate with a crackling, plain-spoken voice – the perfect guy for a recent high school graduate to spend his summer supporting and working for in the fall.
Yeah, I was slightly too young to vote for him that time, but did my best working in the campaign office where while sealing envelopes I was treated with my first example of political hubris. The local office manager, who didn’t seem to do anything, was sure McGovern was going to win.
Of course he lost in a landslide. But this was the election that was tainted with Watergate and the whole host of Nixon dirty tricks that has pretty much now become the S.O.P. for the G.O.P.
The only reason McGovern got the nomination, I realized later, is that all the centrist candidates who would have had a good chance to win, from Muskie to Humphrey, had been hounded out of the race by the dirty tricks gang (another candidate who was so far out there you hardly could believe he was in the same party, George Wallace, was shot and had to drop out).
Though McGovern was ideologically was most similar to my own political feelings, clearly he was not with the rest of the voting public. Even so, Nixon ordered operatives to break into Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate.
There were no debates in that election – Nixon was so flattened by the 1960 debate with Kennedy, he wanted no part of that any more. But had there been, they certainly would have been memorable. McGovern was a forceful speaker, who was wont to quote Yeats as well as Woody Guthrie.
He does both in his party acceptance speech above, that, typical of his campaign, was unleashed in the middle of the night after a long and divisive battle for vice president (which had to change later as well, in a fumbling that pretty much cost him the campaign).
He ended up winning just Massachusetts and D.C. and the weight of the defeat was nearly crushing. Still, he said in his eloquent concession speech, “If we pushed the day of peace just one day closer than every minute and every hour and every bone crushing effort was worth the entire sacrifice.”
And of course, he did just that, just as he was indispensible in opening up the party and leading the way to primary victors to win the nomination, not party bosses.
Upon defeat, he did not give up his cause, though his subsequent runs for president was even more Quixotic than ’72. His values remained constant, though, and stood up in his 80s to call for impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for their war efforts in Iraq.
The spark he set off in countless young people flowered decades later, and maybe today to activism and speaking truth to power.