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  • George McGovern died last weekend. George and I share a little bit of history, going back 40 years. By this time in 1972, I was the young buck leading the charge on the phones at Democratic Headquarters in Windsor, Connecticut, for his presidential campaign. I was 17. My 18th birthday was 5 days after Election Day. I was making my “non-vote” count!

    I was a “grass roots” volunteer. I still have my T-Shirt from that campaign. The symbol was of a dove with an olive branch in its mouth. George was the “peace” candidate. He was the first U.S. Senator to come out against the war in Viet Nam. Many others followed him, and launched campaigns based on opposition to the war, most famously Eugene McCarthy in 1968, which many believe drove LBJ (then-President Lyndon Johnson) to resign instead of seek reelection in 1968. That’s when Bobby Kennedy jumped into the race, got everyone, myself included, very excited about politics, but then got assassinated before he could get nominated.

    However, not many remember that McGovern was the first in the Senate to say no to that War, and he consistently said no to it. He was the first to point out how immoral it was, and how we really had no business even being there. This, from a man who had flown 32 successful combat missions in the Second World War. He stood up when no one else would, and called it the way he saw it. This took a ton of courage in 1966, when LBJ was still in his full glory and a definitely a man not to mess with.

    While McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign had a whole lot of young blood in it all over the country, I was one of the few really young people involved in Windsor, the only one under 18. I was just emerging from a summer-long bout with suicidal depression, had just started college that Fall, and had thrown myself headfirst into politics as soon as I learned the truth about Watergate, convinced from the start that Nixon was totally involved with it all. But, by that point, I was more against Nixon than I was for McGovern. Still, there were a lot of things about McGovern that I liked.

    Like now, they were complex times. George wasn’t like a lot of the other politicians back then. He was a plain-spoken guy from a tiny state (population-wise), South Dakota. He wasn’t really all that charismatic; he didn’t fire crowds up with brilliant, profound speeches, like the Kennedys did. He had a quiet authenticity about him that came through when he spoke. He was kind of an Everyman type of guy.

    His had been a miraculous story of a grass roots effort to wrest control of the politics in this country, and the Democratic party, from the hands of the kingmakers, and the smoky back-room hacks that were known to control these things, and into the hands of the people. Ed Muskie from Maine had been the heir apparent of the Democratic Party early on in the ’72 campaign. He had all the major endorsements, all the king-makers loved him, and he was their man. The only problem was, if it was possible, he was even less charismatic than McGovern on the stump, and unlike McGovern, he really had no message to speak of. He just seemed like the Democratic equivalent of “Status Quo”, a more liberal version of Nixon. “Vote for me, because you can trust me – I’m Ed Muskie from Maine.” A-yup. And….? Sorry, Ed, no one was buying that “message”. He made “Vanilla” look and sound exciting. He bombed early and often in the primaries, and quickly had the party faithful scrambling for someone else who could take on Nixon.

    Hubert Humphrey tried taking over the Democratic charge, but he was so “old-school” politics, still associated in the public mind to the failed Johnson administration policies that had led us deep into the now-unpopular Viet Nam war, and he’d already failed to beat Tricky Dick Nixon in the previous presidential election.

    George Wallace was extremely charismatic, but his whole appeal was based on fear and bigotry. He was actually coming on strong in the primaries, when he, too, got shot, though he did survive, paralyzed from the waist down.

    So, the stage was set for an up from the grass roots type of candidate like McGovern, who had spent a lot of time crafting a solid ground organization in key states that could propel him to the top, if no one else managed to energize the Democratic masses, which no one did. It was the first year that 18 year-olds would have the vote (you used to have to be 21 – “old enough to carry a gun, but not old enough to vote!”). McGovern targeted that demographic, and really was the only candidate speaking to them. All he had to do was to convince them to go out and vote, and the majority of them would vote for him.

    By the time the Democratic Convention rolled around, late that summer, George had the nomination locked up. But, in his moment of triumph, he got run over by the very machine he had fought so hard to defeat. It had been a wild and crazy convention, with lots of jockeying and politicking going on to determine who would be his running mate. There was lots of buzz about Ted Kennedy, despite the fact that he was such damaged goods at that point, thanks to the whole Chappaquiddick Affair. Several years earlier, Teddy had driven off a bridge with a young lady in his car, driving her home from a party in the wee hours of the morning, and then had inexplicably fled the scene without reporting the accident to anyone, or even seeking help. She drowned and died, and he somehow never got charged. While his name and family somehow got him off from further criminal charges surrounding the young lady’s death, Teddy had still really blown it, politically.

    But the Kennedy family, and name, still carried a ton of weight in Democratic politics, as it would for years to come. They, and every other political hack still haunting the halls and corners of democratic politics, proceeded to high-jack that convention, and poor George didn’t get a chance to make his acceptance speech until 2:30 in the morning, when even the most ardent of political junkies was beyond worn-out. Nice speech, but nobody heard it. And then, it only got worse for George.

    When no one could agree on who his running mate should be, they came up with a compromise candidate, a guy named Tom Eagleton. He had inexplicably never revealed that there was anything in his past that could raise any questions about his viability as a vice presidential candidate, but within days of the convention, a newspaper was threatening to report about his having been hospitalized for depression on three different occasions, and having had received electro-shock therapy. Back then, this information was political death. To get ahead of the story, Eagleton held a press conference to voluntarily reveal this information (it would have been nice if he had first revealed it to McGovern’s staffers), and he publicly offered to resign from the ticket.

    This was when McGovern almost lost me, and I believe it was where he lost a lot of the energy and youthful enthusiasm he had generated throughout the country, up to that point. No one would have blamed him if he had simply said, “Hey, no harm, no foul”, accepted Eagleton’s resignation, and moved on with another running mate. But, instead, he really blew it. He publicly said, “No, Tom, I stand behind you one hundred percent, you’re my man, there’s no reason a few hospitalizations and a history of depression should reduce your viability as a vice presidential candidate!” As someone who was, at the time, just crawling out of a suicidal depression himself, I thought this was highly courageous of McGovern, and in that moment, I would have walked to the ends of the earth for that guy. However, behind the scenes, he immediately began to make plans to replace Eagleton with someone else.

    This seemed so out-of-character for McGovern, and in retrospect, it really was. He was simply in over his head, at that point. But, his actions quickly made him look like “one of them” – just another politician, saying one thing, but doing another. Within short order, Eagleton was pushed off the ticket, Sargent Shriver (a Kennedy In-Law) was on the ticket, and the worst trouncing to ever occur in a presidential election (McGovern took only 1 state to Nixon’s 49) was on its way to fruition.

    I campaigned hard for McGovern, though. I still felt there was enough there to like, and when you stacked him up against the Trickster (Nixon), there was no comparison. His historic defeat was a crushing blow to me. I was devastated. I really came to hate politics for a long time after that.

    But, through the years, my admiration for George McGovern grew, as I realized he really was that guy that I first came to follow and admire. I was watching George Stephanoupolis’s Roundtable from last week, this morning, and Democratic and Republican pundits alike agreed that George’s run in 1972 did more to change the direction of the Democratic Party for the next 40 years than any other single event. He almost single-handedly wrested the party from the hands of the back room political hacks and laid the groundwork for a more inclusive and progressive approach. Too bad there aren’t more like him on the scene, today. I am proud to have backed such a “loser” in 1972!

    When the Washington Nationals first came to town in 2005, I went to a ton of games the first few years. A guy who often sat beside me, along with his wife, turned out to have been McGovern’s Campaign Manager when he first ran for the Senate. From him I learned that George really was the kind of guy he portrayed himself to be. Just a regular guy from South Dakota, determined to make the world a better place.

    Godspeed, my old friend. You won, in the end.
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