Photos by Liz Gorman
Lookout Mountain, Georgia — I started thinking about writing an obituary for George McGovern four days ago, when the news came out of Sioux Falls that the senator was in hospice and, as the family put it, "nearing the end." But I waited too long to actually write it, and I know that by now everyone will have had a chance to read hundreds of genial reassessments written, for the most part, by the same journalists who have spent the last 40 years using George McGovern's name as a handy little example of everything that doesn't work in our national politics. And every politician appearing on cable news will be asked to give a somber couple lines or two, which they will use to twist his legacy any which way they'd like, because you can do that after a man's dead. Here's Politico describing Newt Gingrich on CNN, remembering McGovern:
"George actually was a very complicated person," Gingrich said, adding that he was not opposed to war in general, just to the conflict in Vietnam.
"He was a citizen," Gingrich said... adding that he once spoke to him about losing to Goldwater. [Sic. McGovern lost to Nixon.] "He said, 'One of the nice things about losing badly enough is you don’t have lots of regrets about what one thing you might have changed.'...He had a very good sense of humor."
Gingrich also said McGovern had run a bed and breakfast late in life and understood a small-business-owner's perspective on regulations.
That's nice. The Times obituary, in its way, treats the man's memory even worse: "Elected to the Senate in 1962, Mr. McGovern left no special mark in his three terms, but he voted consistently in favor of civil rights and antipoverty bills, was instrumental in developing and expanding food stamp and nutrition programs, and helped lead opposition to the Vietnam War in the Senate." And then: "In the Senate, Mr. McGovern became a reliable vote for Democratic initiatives and a leader on food and hunger issues as a member of the Agriculture Committee. But he was more interested in national politics than in legislation."
Which, if you follow the logic, is a retelling of the McGovern story as one of overreach and failure: He spent his career in public life working for national office, and he got blown out of both in '68, when he tried late for the Democratic nomination, and, of course, in 1972. That's basically the consensus, across the political world, and that's what we'll remember, after the various candidates have given their copy-ready lines on the subject: "He was a great statesman," or "The world has lost a tireless advocate," or, strongest: "George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction."
That last one is Barack Obama, of course. Who the Clintonites, if you remember the 2008 primaries, were always trying to imply might turn out to be another McGovern. The Weekly Standard called him "Barack Hussein McGovern." There were facile similarities of the sort that historically-minded political writers make short pieces out of: they were both senators from plains states, both former professors, both won the nomination by out-organizing a better-funded front-runner, both were the candidates of the party's activist wing, and neither was totally comfortable with the role.
Now, not having been alive when McGovern was active in politics I don't have any of the intimacy we tend to develop with our contemporary candidates for national office. But I'm sitting here drinking beer and reading this stuff and trying halfway to work on the next installment of this ridiculous travelogue. Which, I am realizing, is starting to take the form of a complex apologia for the flawed figure of Barack Obama.
And, Christ. The thing you notice, reading about McGovern, is how by any basic standard of human honor he was just a better person than this president has been able to be. It's possible that the Times is right, that McGovern really did spend his senate years scheming for the presidency. But if he did, the scheme was either invisible or irredeemably wrongheaded. He couldn't subordinate his ethics to his will to power. Obama can. Or, possibly, Obama doesn't have the ethics I attribute to him. We may never know. But McGovern gave hectoring speeches on the senate floor. He stood up in front of people who would have a huge influence on the nominating process and said to them, about Vietnam, "Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood." When a fellow Democrat came to him and complained that he'd been offended, McGovern said, "That's what I meant to do." His major domestic policy issue was food security for the poor. Honestly. The Wall Street Journal wrote on its editorial page today that"McGovern's policies have prevailed among Democratic activists and have arguably triumphed in the Obama Presidency." Which is not really true, but the policy comparison is sort of beside the point. McGovern had a seriousness to him that makes him seem, today, like something other than a national politician.
Tonight Barack Obama will do one last debate and pretend that he really believes that this ginned-up crisis in Libya is really the major foreign policy question facing this country. And he still might lose. Which would just be ugly as hell to have to think about, because I still can't come around to the idea that a lie like that comes easily to him.
Hunter S. Thompson wrote something cogent and touching in September 1972, when he realized there was no hope for the McGovern candidacy. None of the remembrances will say it so well:
The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about "new politics" and "honesty in government," is one of the few men who've run for President of the United States in this century who really 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 everyday of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.
Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?
And I guess we'll see.
Previously - On the Road with Obama and Romney - Part 4