In 1972, when, for the first time, Americans from the ages of 18 to 20 could vote thanks to the 26th Amendment, this nineteen-year-old went off to proudly cast his for one of the biggest political "losers" in our nation's history. Yes, that was the year that our incumbent president, Richard Nixon, swept 49 states and poor George McGovern was left with just one---Massachusetts--thanks, no doubt, to all the Kennedys there who voted for him.
Less than two years later, of course, as impeachment closed in around him, you couldn't find anyone who'd voted for Nixon, and one of my all-time favorite bumper stickers began to appear: "Don't blame me. I voted for McGovern." Meanwhile, Mr. McGovern tried not to gloat, but couldn't resist mentioning a few times that he'd done his best to warn us that the Nixon White House was one of the most, perhaps the most corrupt in American history.
But, as often happens when politicians try to tell Americans what they need to heard, rather than what they want to hear, for the most part his attempts to tell the truth fell on deaf ears. as millions rejected him, and instead handed Nixon a landslide. Yes, one of McGovern's biggest handicaps as a politician was his habit of telling the truth, but as we've seen time after time, telling the truth is often the "kiss of death" if you want to be president.
For this nineteen-year-old, at least, it was an early and valuable lesson in a principle called "realpolitiks" which prepared me for what would come later. But, that year, I watched in amazement while my fellow Americans spurned the man who was clearly the honest one, and instead embraced the man who was clearly a crook. And what was even more amazing was that there were so many who hadn't been able to figure out Nixon at least twenty years earlier.
In 1952, he'd delivered what has come to be known as the "Checkers Speech," which, among famous speeches, still holds the distinction of being perhaps the most disingenuous in the history of American politics, with the only other possible candidate for that "honor" being the one Ted Kennedy delivered in 1969 after his Chappaquiddick affair. Of course, my amazement at Americans' lack of discernment was only increased by the fact that two of the ones who'd bought Nixon's lies were my own parents.
Then, adding to the irony in 1972, was the way Nixon and McGovern were viewed in regards to the Vietnam War, using those two popular labels at the time: the "hawks" and the "doves," which were applied to those who were basically for or against our involvement. Nixon, of course, was the hawk, while McGovern, who'd come out against the war early, was the dove. Nixon stood for "strength," and, yes, "peace," but "with honor," while McGovern was seen as "cutting and running."
But the irony is this: Nixon, the "hawk," had never seen combat in World War II. Although he did serve honorably in the Navy, he'd spent much of the war playing poker, while McGovern, the "dove," was in the thick of it, having piloted 35 extremely dangerous bomber missions over Italy, including the last one when he'd nursed his badly damaged plane home and saved his entire crew.
In the years to come, we would see this hawk and dove "pattern" repeated over and over as the politicians who had actually seen combat or military service were painted as "weak," while those who'd stayed home were the ones who were "strong." We saw it with Reagan the "pro-military" president who'd never come closer to combat than a Hollywood back lot, all the way to George W. Bush who'd "served" in Texas during the Vietnam War, while John Kerry was the one who'd seen combat. Instead, W. emerged as the "war hero," who landed in full flight suit on an aircraft carrier during that phony photo op in May of 2003.
Later that year, this "false hero" enthrallment was taken to new heights when millions of "Caulifornians" fell for the fake, "movie hero," Arnold Schwarzennegger, one of the biggest political and private-life phonies to ever run for an office. Now, this year, Romney was seen as "strong" on the military, and ready to go to war with Iran. But while he said he supported the Vietnam War, he chose instead to "serve" on a Mormon mission to France when he could have volunteered to die in a rice paddy.
Unlike these men, no doubt because he'd seen combat himself, McGovern knew what war was about, and was sick, as he once said, "of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in," and worked for the day when war is made obsolete. Not only that, but he also saw executions, like war, as immoral and unnecessary, despite the fact that he undoubtedly knew this opposition was yet another "kiss of death" for any American politician if he wants to be seen as "tough" on crime.
Thirty-five years after my vote for McGovern, it was executions that brought us together. In 2007, Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty group I'd been active with for several years, announced that it would honor McGovern at their annual banquet in Los Angeles for his long-time stand against executions, and as soon as I found out he would be there, I knew I would be too. I'd always wanted to thank him personally for what he'd done to bring honesty and integrity into American politics, and tell him that I was still proud of my vote in 1972.
When I approached him at the reception, he gave me almost five minutes of "face time," and after I'd told him about my vote in '72, I wasn't exactly surprised when he gave me a knowing smile, and said, yes, he had heard that a few times before, but still thanked me sincerely. I was also thankful that, at the age of 85, McGovern could hear the appreciation that night for his courageous opposition to executions, having had the "strength" to be seen by so many as a politician who was "soft" on crime.
George McGovern's political career proves that the American people, despite their constant complaints to the contrary, have had a number of opportunities to vote for honest politicians, it's just that too often we don't. In 1972 we certainly didn't, and this on-going pattern perhaps explains, in part, why, some forty years later, we find our country in the shape it's now in.
After McGovern was kicked to the curb, we did the same to politicians like Jimmy Carter, who tried to tell us the truth about our dependency on foreign oil, but instead turned to Reagan, who told us to stop worrying and ignore all that whining. Since then we've ignored politicians like Paul Tsongas, and congressmen Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who warned us repeatedly that the Bush administration was lying about the need for a war with Iraq. Now soon Kucinich too will be gone.
Finally, as Americans continue to die in Afghanistan, in yet another seemingly endless and unwinnable war against a "rag-tag army of insurgents" in a third-world country thousands of miles from our shores, the words of George McGovern, and what he said about Vietnam, ring out from the past. But, sadly, too many of us continue to ignore them, and now this war's gone on even longer.
We need to listen. Although his voice has now been silenced, George McGovern, and the standard he set for telling the truth is needed now more than ever, and for that, I thank this "true" American hero.