McGovern part of first political memory
Former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern died last week at age 90.
My first political memory is of the 1972 presidential election season. Democrat George McGovern challenged the Republican incumbent, President Richard Nixon.
I was in second grade.
George McGovern, I overheard in my grandparent's kitchen, was a bad man. Probably a communist. On the side of the enemy. A traitor.
He was all those things because he opposed the Vietnam War and wanted it to end.
It was obvious from what I heard that all Christians should vote for Nixon.
Most of them did, obviously.
McGovern didn't do himself any favors. He ran one of the worst campaigns in recent history, a campaign so bad it called into question his fitness for executive office.
Not all of his misfortunes were self-inflicted: McGovern's vice-presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton had to be replaced after his history of treatment for depression came to light.
Richard Nixon, it turns out, self-medicated his mental health problems with loads of booze. But President Nixon hid it, which is what we prefer.
McGovern probably made a mistake when he refused to use his sterling credentials as a World War II hero to fight off attacks on his patriotism during the campaign.
When the other side screamed that he was a traitor to his country, George McGovern might have pointed to his incredible tenure as a B-24 bomber pilot. He could have showed crowds his arms: Even 25 years after the war, one was larger than the other due to the strength it took to control the joy stick on the B-24 as it climbed over the Alps.
But McGovern refused. He didn't think it was right to use his military career for political gain.
McGovern also didn't effectively manage the Democratic Convention. The proceedings turned chaotic. The candidate delivered his acceptance speech at 2 a.m. while the nation slept.
And he faced an opponent, Richard Nixon, who was every bit as crooked as his Democratic predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson.
Both Nixon and Johnson once suffered defeats by margins so razor-thin that they vowed to never lose again no matter how many corners they had to cut.
Both were driven by their demons to crush their opponents by whatever means possible. In fact, Nixon actually chose McGovern as his opponent by covertly eliminating Maine Senator Edmund Muskie from the Democratic primary race.
Muskie was potentially a tough opponent. He was more moderate than McGovern. And he led Nixon in the polls.
So, Nixon's operatives forged a letter which made it look like Muskie's wife was mentally ill, drank hard and used bad language. Another forged letter made it appear that Muskie hated French-Canadians, who were a voting block in the New Hampshire primary.
Nixon's hatchet-men, posing as Muskie's campaign staffers, cancelled reservations for auditoriums which were to hold Muskie rallies.
When Muskie's people arrived to prepare, the doors were locked.
Nixon's men even ordered hundreds of pizzas to be sent to Muskie headquarters, for which Muskie's campaign had to pay or face national disgrace.
On a snowy February day in New Hampshire, an aide handed Muskie the newspaper which showed the forged letter implying that his wife was a drunk.
As he stood on a flat-bed truck ready to give a speech, Muskie broke down in tears. He knew Nixon played dirty, but the attack on his wife was too much.
Breaking down in tears was not a good idea for a presidential candidate in 1972. Muskie was done. McGovern was nominated. Richard Nixon got the opponent he wanted, and he crushed him.
The additional tricks Nixon used against the McGovern campaign, illegal actions which eventually caused Nixon to resign the presidency in disgrace, were unnecessary.
Nixon would have won anyway.
As the decades have passed, one could argue that McGovern's views on Vietnam have been vindicated.
However, if you can manage to overlook Nixon's criminal activities during election season and his ruthless policies against the civilian populations of Southeast Asia, Tricky Dick wasn't all bad as president.
Nixon showed intelligence and flexibility when he governed.
He founded the Environmental Protection Agency. He proposed a national health care system more far-reaching than Obamacare.
He expanded the food stamp program. He created the first affirmative action programs. He reached out to China. In short, he was more pragmatic than ideological.
But Nixon's demons are what we remember. Now, both Richard Nixon and George McGovern are in their graves.
One was an effective national politician in the 1960s and 1970s. The other was not.
More importantly today, however: One was a man of honor.
And the other was most certainly not.