Was George McGovern a political saint—a man of such total moral purity that he transcended the day-to-day realities of money and power that usually dominate American politics?
That’s certainly the impression one might get from reading the tributes that appeared in the alternative media before and after the former Senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic Party candidate for President died on October 21 at age 90.
At Truthdig, Chris Hedges called McGovern a “good man” who “never sold his soul” and “a politician who cared more for his country and for human decency than he did for his political ambitions or his career.” Writing in The Nation, John Nichols described McGovern’s 1972 campaign “less of a political endeavor than a popular crusade.”
Democracy Now! featured the documentary “One Bright Shining Moment,” which characterized McGovern’s run for president as a “grassroots campaign” that would have had momentous consequences if had been successful.
“Can you imagine if McGovern had become president?” asks one McGovern supporter in the movie. “Can you imagine a world without Watergate, without yellow ribbons, without Madison Avenue-induced patriotism? Can you imagine a world that wasn’t hungry?”
Would a McGovern victory really have ended world hunger? Perhaps a more sober assessment of McGovern’s role as the candidate for what political commentator Kevin Phillips once called “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party” is called for.
Certainly comparing Obama’s policies today with McGovern’s 1972 platform shows how far to the right the Democrats have moved in the past four decades. McGovern’s fiery presidential nomination acceptance speech called for America to “come home” from “military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation … [and] from the prejudice based on race and sex, from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick,” and promised an immediate cease fire in Vietnam on his inauguration day.
But McGovern was speaking at a moment when many years of militancy and radicalism by the civil rights and anti-war movements had pushed the political climate far to the left. Even McGovern’s opponent, Richard Nixon—who established the Environmental Protection Agency, dramatically expanded affirmative action programs, and even proposed a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans—was a radical compared to today’s Democratic Party.
It is also true that by the late 1960s, a significant segment of the American establishment had come to the conclusion that the war in Vietnam could not be won and that continuing it was destabilizing not just civil society but the U.S. armed forces themselves, as well as seriously weakening the country’s international standing.
The left-wing newspaper Workers’ Power noted at the time, “these businessmen, of course, are not opposed to American imperialism in general but only to a futile Vietnam policy.” The same was true of McGovern, who told the nominating convention that while he would reduce military spending he would also continue “the shield of our strength” for “our old allies in Europe,” and maintain U.S. aid to Israel.
Business figures were willing to support McGovern as a candidate who could appeal to the social movements and draw them back into the orbit of mainstream politics. But while McGovern called on radical activists to join his campaign as foot soldiers, it was never in any sense a “grassroots” insurgency.
As the political scientists Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers point out in their book Right Turn, “the major fund-raisers for George McGovern’s Presidential bid were [not] college students, Black Panthers, and the leadership of the National Organization for Women,” but figures such as Max Palevsky, chair of the executive committee of Xerox, cosmetics company heir Max Factor III, and Michael Fribourg, head of Continental Grain.
McGovern received support from those sectors of business most nervous that Nixon’s moves towards economic nationalism in response to the 1971 recession might trigger a trade war with Europe and Japan. Big business was never worried that McGovern was a threat to their core interests. The candidate told Businessweek, “It’s hard for me to believe that Congress would pass a program that would wreck the free enterprise system… I don’t want to recommend things that I know have no chance of support.”
Even on the central question of withdrawal from Indochina, McGovern was more equivocal than most of his supporters. His official position was full withdrawal of troops in exchange for the return of prisoners of war—a concession to the right-wing myth that the North Vietnamese were holding large numbers of captured Americans. When asked in June 1972 what he would do if POW’s were not released, he McGovern replied, “Under such circumstances, we’d have to take action.”
At the Democratic convention in Miami the following month, McGovern announced that he was planning to keep a“residual force” in Southeast Asia until all POWs were released. “Only when angry McGovern delegates threatened to bolt, and anti-war demonstrators staged a sit-in at his hotel,” Workers’ Power reported, “did the embarrassed candidate retract the statement.”
Although McGovern had a reputation for putting principle ahead of political expediency, the opposite was often the case. Although he opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam almost from the moment he entered the Senate in 1963, he nevertheless voted in favor of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution the following year, which gave Johnson a blank check to expand the war, because he was persuaded he needed to stand with the President in the run up to the 1964 election.
McGovern’s first short-lived effort to win the Democratic nomination was in 1968, but when that failed he endorsed the pro-war Hubert Humphrey for President. McGovern also moderated his votes in the Senate to improve his electoral chances. In his first few years as a Senator he received a score of 92 from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, but that dropped to 43 in the year leading up to his reelection race.
Shortly after the 1972 convention ended, McGovern launched his general election campaign by paying a visit to the chief architect of the Vietnam war, Lyndon B. Johnson, at the latter’s Texas ranch. McGovern praised the former president, who had been driven from office by the anti-war movement a few years earlier, revealed that he would have endorsed LBJ for reelection in 1968 had he run, and told reporters “I will continue to treasure his friendship, his counsel, and his support.”
McGovern also paid a fence-mending visit to Mayor Richard J. Daley in Chicago, the man responsible for anti-war protesters being beaten by the police outside the 1968 Democratic convention. “We will work closely with Mayor Daley,” he announced. “We welcome his support and his endorsement.”
As part of the deal, McGovern threw his support behind the entire Democratic ticket in Illinois, including Cook County State Attorney Edward Hanrahan, the man who had ordered the police raid that ended in the assassinations of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. Hanrahan, who ran a racist but ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign, was under indictment for obstruction of justice at the time and even the Cook County Democratic Organization refused to back him.
McGovern’s first running mate in 1972, Thomas Eagleton, was asked to step down after a controversy over his mental health. His replacement, JFK’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, toured Georgia and Louisiana pandering to Southern racists by promising to be tough on “welfare chiselers” and street criminals, and boasting that he had many ancestors who had fought for the Confederacy. The New York Times described him as sounding “more like Robert E. Lee than Abraham Lincoln.”
Meanwhile, McGovern himself criticized Nixon for being ineffective in addressing street crime. The significance of this was not lost on the Wall Street Journal, which commented: “Senator McGovern and his backers are in the unique position of being able to discuss law-and-order realistically for a constituency which is unlikely to heed discussion of the subject by other candidates.”
While McGovern had won the nomination by making powerful speeches against the war and in favor of cutting military spending, he muted these themes after he won the nomination and moved back to the center. Workers’ Power pointed out that this shift was not so much a “transformation” as it was a “logical evolution.”
“The men and institutions of power which dominate the capitalist parties make it certain that any Presidential candidate, no matter how ‘left-wing’ he may be at the start, must come to them for support sooner or later. They have the organization, and they have the money.”
McGovern had leaned far enough to the left in the primaries that he lost the support of the most conservative elements of the party. The national AFL-CIO under George Meany refused to endorse him (although many individual unions, including the UAW, SEIU and AFSCME did so) and former Texas governor John Connally formed Democrats for Nixon.
But McGovern’s campaign played the role of restoring faith in electoral politics. In the spring of 1970, the New York Times reported that three million students believed that a revolution was needed in the United States. By 1976, most of them were supporting Jimmy Carter, who after being elected became the country’s first neo-liberal president.
In an interview on Democracy Now!, McGovern supporter Stephen Vittoria explained McGovern’s role: “I believe the 1960s, the social revolutions of the 1960s, absolutely came to an end in 1972. The people that cut their teeth on the antiwar movement and civil rights movement, the women’s movement, they came together on George McGovern’s campaign.”
In the end, McGovern lost the election to Nixon in a landslide. Would it have changed the course of U.S. politics if he had won? That seems unlikely. U.S. involvement in Vietnam was already coming to an end. The last combat troops were withdrawn before the election in August 1972, and the Paris Peace accords were signed at the end of the following January. It is difficult to see how McGovern could have speeded up the process.
In 2007, McGovern revealed that he had voted for Gerald Ford in the 1976 Presidential election. Ford was widely reviled on the left at the time for pardoning Nixon after the disgraced President’s resignation, but McGovern said “I supported that idea of a pardon even before President Ford granted it.”
In terms of economic policy, in 1974 Businessweek succinctly spelled out the ruling class agenda as the long postwar boom came to an end:
“It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing that this nation or any other nation has done in modern history compares to the selling job that now must be done to make people accept the new reality.”
Would McGovern have bucked this plan? Given his ties to corporate America it is hard to think so. If he had tried, he would likely have been tossed out of office at the next election.
The only thing that could have made a difference was powerful independent movements on the ground acting as a counterweight to the power of big business—but the whole point of McGovern’s campaign was to demobilize the movements, not to grow them. Vice President Joe Biden’s memorial address in which he called McGovern the “father of the modern Democratic Party,” is probably an accurate assessment of his legacy.
There is a tendency for even progressives in the U.S. to focus on individuals and their personal characteristics, rather than on structures of power. We began by asking whether McGovern was a saint. We don’t think so and we have tried to explain why. But even a saint working within the existing political system could do very little.
The Democratic Party is every bit as much a party of big business as the Republicans. Every attempt to use it as a vehicle for progressive change by working inside it has been a failure. Only when strong movements have challenged the Democrats from the outside have progressives won significant victories. If we want real change in the future, we will have to rebuild them.
Sarah Blaskey is a freelance journalist based in Madison, WI. She co-authored a four-part series on stealth lobbyingpublished by Truthout earlier this year.
Phil Gasper teaches at Madison College and writes a column for the International Socialist Review.