Michael Hagan ’15
“It is not for nothing that I will go to my grave believing that ours is the greatest country on earth.” – George S. McGovern
George McGovern, a hero in war and peace, passed away Sunday morning in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at the age of 90. McGovern, a decorated WWII Air Force veteran best known today for the crushing defeat Richard Nixon dealt him in the 1972 presidential election, represented South Dakota in the US Senate through two tumultuous decades.
McGovern entered the Senate eleven months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Under the Johnson Administration, the Senate would be a pivotal battleground for matters of war, civil rights, and social justice. McGovern, like most Americans after WWII, aligned with the values of the post-war bipartisan liberal consensus, but it was a profound sense of empathy (which he attributed to his mother and Wesleyan pastor father… who were, as a matter of fact, Republicans) that compelled him to push the envelope in taking ownership of and battling injustice in the United States and abroad. “We ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society’s ills” he wrote. “Sympathy is the first step toward action.”
His empathetic and self-giving character was evident in his courageous service at war (in which he was shot down over the Adriatic), in his nearly life-long fight against hunger at home and abroad, in his work to bring Democratic leadership out from closed-door smoke-filled rooms, in his fight for peace, and in his humble post-Senate life and career.
From early in his term, McGovern openly opposed US military involvement in Vietnam and greater Indochina. In just over five years, his definitive and uncompromising commitment to ending the war sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party. Seen as successor to the leadership of the intra-party anti-war movement after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, the first-term junior senator’s name was plunged into the presidential nomination struggle. Pro-war Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president in 1968, but in an election that perhaps no Democrat could win after a disastrous convention, California Governor Richard Nixon won the White House.
When Nixon, under the guise of “peacemaker,” escalated the intensity of the war and spread it through greater Indochina, McGovern would not be complicit in the façade. Nixon would make him and American liberals pay dearly for it. “A vote for McGovern is a vote for acid, amnesty, and abortion” was the common smear. Nixon used a strategy of fear (i.e. Southern Strategy, Silent Majority) to pull at best prejudiced and at worst hateful factions under the Republican tent. “Republicans have commandeered God, family, and flag – things we all value, no matter what our party affiliation or how flush our bank accounts,” wrote McGovern. Though, by today’s standards, he himself had liberal tendencies, Nixon’s strategy broke the GOP off from the decades-strong liberal consensus. He initiated a multi-decade transformation that injected contempt for many of the marginalized into the Republican Party, alienating those who still clung to the post-war spirit of “America Victorious.”
McGovern was in every way resistant to this transformation. In this regard, perhaps George McGovern was the true great conservative of post-war America; he clung like hell to the values that defined the American Century. “I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie,” he told the New York Times in 2005. “My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever.” Opponents would unjustly mask McGovern’s distinctly American identity, accusing him of being cowardly and unpatriotic. History calls him a liberal. Were he a candidate today, neo-conservative fear mongers would most likely – and inaccurately – hurl the term socialist.
George McGovern was one of the last living giants who could tell you first-hand what the Greatest Generation really stood for. His generation endured dire economic depression, experienced war first hand, and was fittingly determined to prevent both. They stood for peace, but knew when to fight. They believed in personal financial responsibility, but knew first hand the need for social solidarity. Chris Christie was clearly confused when he invoked the Greatest Generation in his keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention; George McGovern nor Mark Hatfield, Sam Gibbons nor George Romney, John Kennedy nor Nelson Rockefeller would subscribe to the neo-conservative, nay-saying, supply-side worldview of too many in today’s right-wing.
“Compassion does more than make people feel good; it is a smart way to approach the world.”
George McGovern was not foolish enough to believe that social progress was the natural product of net growth. Social progress requires an acute social consciousness and commitment to justice. The roots of his political philosophy reached far deeper than net financial growth or political power; his compass was compassion, and it guided him through a humble life of great deeds.
“During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I’ve been labeled a ‘bleeding-heart liberal.’ It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does bleed for those who are hurting.”
It is hard to do justice in words to a hero. This longer-than-average post, for which my draft was admittedly much longer, can only begin to shed light on the incredible story of an incredible man. Following in the example of George McGovern and the Greatest Generation, may our hearts too bleed for those who are hurting. May compassion be our common guiding political, economic, and social principle. May we live every day knowing our country to be the greatest on earth, and honor her by holding the dignity of her people as our shared priority.
May we accept this great American’s traditional, patriotic, and compassionate invitation: “Come home, America.”
The iconic “Come Home, America” segment of McGovern’s 1972 acceptance speech begins at 27:19