George McGovern was on the wrong end of the 1972 presidential-election landslide, losing 49 states. Forty years later, the term “McGovernite” is still used as a pejorative by some conservatives.
Yet by virtually all accounts from both sides of the aisle, Mr. McGovern, who died at age 90 Sunday, was a thoroughly good and decent man. Former Republican Senate leader Bob Dole, who lost only 31 states in the 1996 presidential election, paid touching tribute to his friend in Monday’s Washington Post. Mr. Dole wrote:
“There can be no doubt that throughout his half-century career in the public arena, George McGovern never gave up on his principles or in his determination to call our nation to a higher plane. America and the world are for the better because of him.”
Such accolades are a reminder that even strong political differences don’t have to fuel personal animus.
Yes, the South Dakota senator pushed the Democratic party sharply leftward — particularly in his ardent and many would say prescient opposition to the Vietnam War.
In his 1972 nomination acceptance speech, Sen. McGovern vowed to bring “every American soldier” home from Vietnam within 90 days of his inauguration — and urged that we “never again ... send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.”
Six months later, President Richard Nixon, who had won re-election by routing Sen. McGovern, proclaimed “peace with honor.” Less than 19 months after that, Mr. Nixon resigned in disgrace. Less than nine months after that, North Vietnamese armored units overran Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Today, more than 37 years later, debate persists on why and how America went wrong in Southeast Asia.
But there should never have been any debate about Sen. McGovern’s patriotism. He knew the horrors of war from his decorated World War II combat experience — 35 missions over Europe as a B-24 bomber pilot.
And while his ’72 campaign proposal to give each American a $1,000 “demogrant” drew justified ridicule, he was a big enough man to eventually admit underestimating the perils of big government during his three Senate terms (1963-81).
In a 1992 Wall Street Journal commentary, Mr. McGovern chronicled his ill-fated, post-Senate venture as owner of the Stratford (Conn.) Inn, writing: “I ... wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day.”
He sounded an alarm over businesses bearing “increased operating costs that accompany public regulation and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape.”
He added: “We intuitively know that to create job opportunities we need entrepreneurs who will risk their capital against an expected payoff. Too often, however, public policy does not consider whether we are choking off those opportunities.”
And too often, people do not consider that most folks on both sides of the political fence mean well — and that there’s indispensable merit in keeping an open mind. That’s an especially pertinent consideration during this polarized election year.
So is the realization that the original “McGovernite” was an especially admirable American.