George McGovern died recently at the age of 90. He was a man admired for his gallant idealism. For his symbolism against war. As a vibrant candidate of liberal hope and change who enjoyed strong grass-roots support and perhaps deserved a better memory than his fate of being beaten soundly by Richard Nixon in 1972.
With Nixon's approval rating down to just 25% post-Watergate scandal, it was possible for a majority of Americans to say they would vote for McGovern over Nixon in 1974. It was in that moment of Watergate and anti-war frustration that liberalism reached its full expression in America, just as it had in the 1930's with the New Deal. The last 50 years, many liberal ideas such as abortion rights, Medicare, feminism, peaceful foreign relations, civil rights, education, environmental protection, and disarmament of nuclear weapons have all become mainstream ideas, though no less controversial. There is a tenuous voting majority to sustain most of these liberal accomplishments even today.
George McGovern changed the Democratic Party by binding delegate apportionment to open primaries and caucuses, not to the workings of various state conventions to "select" (i.e. rig) the delegations. That is a model that is being used by both political parties today. As such, it was probably the most influential moment of McGovern's long political career.
There were other important issues of the day. End the war. Fight poverty. Protect minority rights. Save the planet. McGovern was once a fresh and vibrant part of the national debate. He was respected in the Senate. By both parties. He was a liberal who did not do drugs, nor drink excessively, was essentially upbeat and positive, not full of doom and gloom, not overly academic, plain-spoken, he had always been faithful to his wife, held basic Christian beliefs, was raised as the son of a Methodist minister, and he was a decorated war hero who survived a great amount of enemy fire. Here was a decent, honest, brave man.
Yet, for all his personable attributes, George McGovern lost in 1972 by one of the widest margins in American history. An truly ignominious defeat. Almost no one saw McGovern give his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention. Due to scheduling absurdities McGovern did not come on until the wee hours of the morning on the east coast. He lost what would have been a television audience of maybe 60 million Americans. Only about 4 million actually saw the speech at 3AM New York time.
With all the liberal eulogies in the various media (many embedded in the links above) over the past few days due to the death of George McGovern, I became tempted to go back and watch his acceptance speech, since I don't think I have ever seen it before in its entirety. It is a surprisingly good speech. It is interrupted several times by loud, continuous applause. McGovern is no slouch in delivering lines with conviction. Had all 60 million Americans seen that in prime time, well, that is one of the many what-ifs of liberalism.
As was his way, he opened with a bit of humor. I have heavily edited the 30-minute speech for the sake of this post.
"I'm happy to join you in this benediction of our Friday sunrise service."
McGovern then expressed thanks for winning the Democratic Party nomination.
"It is the gift of the most open political process in all of our political history. It is the sweet harvest of the work of tens of thousands of volunteers, young and old alike, literally funded by hundreds of thousands of small contributors in every part of this nation. Those who lingered on the brink of despair only a short time ago have been brought into this campaign heart, hand, head, and soul. And I have been the beneficiary of the most remarkable political organization in the history of this country. It is an organization that gives dramatic proof to the power of love and to a faith that can literally move mountains."
"I believe that American politics will never be quite the same again. We are entering into a period of important and hopeful change in America. A period comparable to those eras that unleashed such remarkable ferment in the period of Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt."
McGovern proceeds to recognize all of his challengers individually for the Democratic nomination and speak respectfully of each of them, including George Wallace, who had survived an assassination attempt a few months before.
"And I was as moved as were all of you at the appearance in this convention hall of the Governor of Alabama George Wallace. His votes in the primaries clearly show the depth of discontent in this country. And his courage in the face of pain and adversity is the mark of a man of boundless will."
"We are not conceding a single state to Richard Nixon. Never underestimate the power of Richard Nixon to bring harmony to Democratic ranks. (sustained 22 seconds of applause). He is the unwitting unifier and the fundamental issue of this national campaign. And all of us are going to help him redeem a pledge that he made ten years ago that next year 'you won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.'" (thunderous applause for 20 seconds)
"In scripture and in music to our children we are told 'To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under Heaven.' And for America the time has come at last. I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties a terrible war has been charted behind closed doors. I want those doors opened and I want that war closed." (enthusiastic applause for 20 seconds)
"I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan and as one whose heart ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day (loud applause for 23 seconds). There will be no more Asian children running in a blaze from bombed out schools. Within 90 days of my inauguration every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and back home in America where they belong." (strong applause)
"We must now show that peace and prosperity can exist side-by-side. National security depends upon schools for our children as well as silos for our missiles. It includes the health of our families as much as the size of our bombs. It depends upon the safety of our streets and the conditions of our cities and not just the engines of war. And if we someday choke on the pollution of our own air there will be little consolation in leaving behind a dying continent ringed in steel. So while protecting ourselves abroad, let us form a more perfect union here at home. This is the time for that task."
"The highest single domestic priority of the next administration will be to assure that every American who is able to work has a job to do. (short applause). That job guarantee will and must depend upon a reinvigorated private economy freed at last from the uncertainties and burdens of war. But it is our firm commitment that whatever employment the private sector does not provide the federal government will either stimulate or provide itself. (short applause) Whatever it takes, this country is going back to work. America cannot exist with most of our people working and paying taxes to support too many others mired in a demeaning and hopeless welfare mess.
"Therefore, we intend to put millions back to work and after that is done we will assure to those unable to work an income fully adequate to a decent life. Now, beyond this, a program to put America back to work means that work must be properly rewarded.
"That means the end of a system of economic controls where labor is depressed but prices and corporate profits run sky-high.
"It means a system of national health insurance so that a worker can afford decent healthcare for himself and his family.
"It means real enforcement of the laws so that the drug racketeers are behind bars and our streets are once again safe for our families.
"And above all, honest work must be rewarded by a fair and just tax system. The tax system today does not reward hard work, it penalizes it. Inherited or invested wealth frequently multiples itself while paying no taxes at all but wages on the assembly line or in farming the land, these hard earned dollars are taxed to the very last penny. There is a depletion allowance for oil wells but no depletion for the farmer who feeds us or the assembly worker who serves us all. But an election year is the people's year to speak and this year the people are going to ensure that the tax system is changed so that work is rewarded and so that those to derive the highest benefits will pay their fair share rather than slipping through the loopholes at the expense of the rest of us.
"So let us stand for justice and jobs and against special privilege and this is the time to stand for those things that are close to the American spirit. We are not content with things as they are. We reject the view of those who say America love it our leave it. We reply let us change it so we will love it the more. (sustained applause)
"It is time to live more with faith and less with fear with an abiding confidence that can sweep away the strongest barriers between us and teach us that we are truly brothers and sisters.
"So join with me in this campaign. From secrecy and deception in high places, come home America. From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, come home America. From the entrenchment of special privilege and tax favoritism, from the waste of idle hands to the joy of useful labor, from the prejudice based upon race and sex, from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick, come home America. Come home to affirmation that we have a dream, come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward, come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in the hoped homecoming for this land is your land, this land is my land (quotes Woody Guthrie in full)...this land is made for you and me. (long applause accented by group clapping in rhythm - 36 seconds).
As I mentioned, hardly anyone saw McGovern's "Come Home America" speech. Parts of it seem distant and dated today, all that talk about "love" and being "brothers and sisters". Paying the poor and destitute an allowance for a decent living is certainly far too liberal to be passed today and, indeed, was too liberal an idea even for 1972, contributing to McGovern's historic landslide defeat. But his mention of government "stimulus" is more relevant today than it was then.
Wait. When taken all together the expansion of existing programs and the inclusion of new welfare initiatives since 1972 approaches the ideal of "a decent living" if one factors the collective nature of welfare today, including George W. Bush's Medicare Part D provision. Amnesty was already accomplished in the Carter administration. National health insurance was addressed by Clinton, who faltered, and now is beginning to exist through Obamacare. We are ending all America's foreign wars. Right now, Obama and Romney are debating the very same aspects of taxes as McGovern points to in his speech. The present, separate American economies between working classes and business owners exists, at least, all the way back to Come Home America.
When taken as a whole, the Come Home America speech was a great speech poorly scheduled. But, beyond that, almost everything about the speech is applicable today. Watching this speech in its entirety for the first time I was struck by how prophetic it all is. The major points McGovern makes have either already come to pass since 1972 (becoming an accepted aspect of liberalism) or they have remained fresh and relevant issues, showing the tradition for Obama has clear roots in McGovern.
Last year, McGovern briefly noted his perspective on the Democratic Party and what kind of government the Party stood for. This is a summary of ideals that are rooted in his acceptance speech. George McGovern may be the biggest loser in the history of presidential politics but his vision for the nomination of presidential candidates remains the way both parties do it today and almost everything he advocated in his 1972 Come Home America speech has either come to pass or is being freshly debated. I'd say the jury is still out on what might become of McGovern's 1972 prophecies. It could be he simply saw mega political trends farther than most anyone of his political time. Now wouldn't that be unheard of?
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