Every four years, or at least when the Democrats are out of power, a rising Democratic candidate for president gets to be the George McGovern clone, an unfavorable comparison with the luckless Democratic nominee who lost every state but Massachusetts to Richard Nixon in 1972.
Even Bill Clinton, the ultimate centrist, endured the label for a while in 1992 for he had indeed been one of the youthful idealists who had toiled in that quixotic cause.
This year, Howard Dean wears the McGovern mantle, though not especially well. The New York Times has so far carried 33 articles drawing the comparison. A nationwide search with the Google search engine for articles carrying the names of Dean and McGovern lists 58,000 hits the past two years.
Being labeled "another George McGovern" is supposed to mean that you hold views so extreme or principles so lofty that you have no chance of winning the general election. The purpose of the comparison is to persuade Democratic voters that they should vote with their minds instead of their hearts and nominate a more centrist and thus electable candidate.
In a better world, comparison to George McGovern would be a tribute, not a slander. An acknowledgement that he deserved to be mentioned in the same breath with McGovern would be enough to assure Dean's nomination and election.
You need only to ask how much better the country would have been if in 1972 it had elected the better man, the principled patriot rather than the crook. History has left no doubt about the error of the electorate and the terrible legacy that the democracy bore us on that day.
"McGovernized" is a transitive verb that was born in that campaign. It is to do to a candidate what Nixon and his dirty-tricks apparatus did to George McGovern.
Senator McGovern, a South Dakota history teacher and former director of the Food for Peace program, opposed the Vietnam war, and legions of young people made common cause, giving the campaign the feel of a crusade of the flower children. The Nixon people called it the campaign of "amnesty, acid and abortion," suggesting that McGovern was far outside the mainstream of American values and a sissy as well. He was considered a radical and perhaps even unpatriotic for proposing a negative income tax. Nixon would embrace the idea himself when his own adviser, Pat Moynihan, proposed it. It now takes the form of the earned income tax credit. They implied that McGovern was not patriotic, that indeed he had been a coward in World War II, ducking out of dangerous missions.
The truth was exactly the opposite. While Nixon's connections got him a naval commission so that he could spend the war playing poker as an operations officer, McGovern was piloting B-24s over Germany, maybe the most harrowing mission of the European war. Stephen Ambrose, the great historian of the war, chronicled McGovern's heroic deeds in "The Wild Blue: the Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany 1944-45." The 22-year-old McGovern flew 25 nighttime missions over Germany, often in temperatures at 50 below zero, taking antiaircraft fire and flak, and always hitting his target. On one successful bombing run, with two of his four engines blown away, he wrestled his plane, the Dakota Queen, to a landing on a tiny island in the Adriatic Sea, saving his men. Ambrose called McGovern "one of the greatest patriots I know."
Robert Novak, the conservative columnist and commentator and an acid critic of McGovern in 1972, would say of him after reading "The Wild Blue," "I can never think of George McGovern again in the same way. Of course he was a genuine hero and a great leader."
But few voters ever knew any of that. McGovern refused to profane the memory and honor of his fellow soldiers by exploiting their valor or his own for political advantage. What an odd duck he seems today.
McGovern would never cheapen the sacrifice of warriors by staging political stunts at their expense, such as flying into Baghdad at night to be filmed serving up a fake turkey to troops or donning a flight suit to be filmed on deck with sailors a few yards off the U.S. shore with a backdrop carefully crafted by White House media operations.
Mark Shields, the media man in the McGovern campaign, told years later of the desperate attempts by campaign advisers to counter the image created by the Nixon men and their frustration with McGovern's peculiar sense of decency. Shields proposed TV commercials of McGovern's crew recounting his deeds and his extraordinary compassion for his men. McGovern wouldn't have it. Winning wasn't worth such dishonorable tactics.
No one holds such quaint principles anymore and none has proved worthy of comparison. The country is worse for that void.