Perhaps it’s not exactly what the world needs – aging hippies, full of idealism and a passion to change the world, waxing poetic before a loving camera as they reminisce about that now forgotten campaign of 1972. Warren Beatty, Gloria Steinem, Dick Gregory, Howard Zinn, and the reliably crusty Gore Vidal all show up to inform us that yes, it was a glorious summer those many years ago, and for a time, it appeared that the good guys might in fact win. Here was a man – South Dakota Senator George McGovern – who, by all accounts, was honest, virtuous, and deeply principled, standing tall as the nominee of a major party for President of the
United States. What’s more, he was vying against the hated Nixon; an obviously corrupt, venal man who no one seemed to like, yet kept reappearing like a weed, only to win time after time. Could there ever have been a more obvious contrast of personalities in the long annals of American history? And so we all remember – Saint George never told a lie, kept everything above board, returned lost wallets, and adopted stray kittens; while Tricky Dick kicked puppies, slapped his wife, stole White House china, and even bugged his own mother. But in the face of the patently obvious, the American people turned to the dark side; embracing mendacity, evil, and racism, while rejecting the closest thing we’ve ever had to Jesus in the public arena.
Stephen Vittoria’s wonderful documentary might provoke such reactions, unless of course there was in fact something to the notion that McGovern was the last, best hope we ever had set before us. At the very least, McGovern was the last true liberal to run under the Democratic banner, and since his crushing defeat (among the worst ever, carrying only
Massachusetts and the
District of Columbia), no one has dared flirt with the far left ever again. Both Carter and Clinton – the only successful Democrats since 1976 – banked left for a moment, only to run screaming for a middle that is little different from the old right. The McGovern Massacre forever killed the viability of liberalism as a national idea, even if many today would have us believe that the only thing keeping left-wingers out of power is a corrupt balloting process. Sure, “irregularities” stole victories from both Gore and Kerry (and not mere incompetence, but outright criminal behavior), but they were both far from ideal party men. Gore’s popularity (500,000 more votes than Bush) was based largely on the
Clinton afterglow, but also his willingness to play dumb with many of his core beliefs. Had Gore been as green as his conscience demanded, he would have been soundly defeated, rather than forcing a showdown in
Florida. And had Kerry ripped into the lying idiots at Swift Boat central, or fully explained his position on the war in
Iraq with fire and sass,
Ohio’s issues would have been moot, as several more states would have been added to the Bush column. In other words, Gore and Kerry made it a horse race because they tried to be more like Bush, rather than setting up a real, distinctive choice.
This is proven, again, due in part to Nixon’s status as the least popular twice-elected president in American history. Many hated Reagan’s policies, but even Democrats genuinely liked the guy, if only because he reminded them of their cuddly, senile old grandfathers. But Nixon was impossible to like – even as an faint acquaintance – and his first term policies in
Vietnam (and eventually
Cambodia) were so vicious and bloodthirsty that one wonders how the guy wasn’t impeached by 1971. But despite believing that Nixon just might run
America into the ground, randomly assassinate blacks, and send the National Guard to every major American city, he was – in the end – infinitely preferable to a man like McGovern. The 1972 election tallies, then, prove more conclusively than anything else ever has, that the American people prefer lies to truth, violence to peace, racism to equality, hate to love, and security to freedom. No two men differed more in style and substance than Nixon and McGovern, and the misanthropic, paranoid, callous SOB ran away with the damn thing. If you insist on an “end of the innocence”, that’s as good as you’re going to get.
Attempts to portray McGovern as a mutton-chopped acid head were ridiculous on their face, but the worst charge of all was that of “coward”, given that McGovern flew dangerous bombing runs in World War II. As a man of war, he knew how truly heinous it was, but as he opposed the conflict in
Vietnam, he could only be an emasculated fool bent on handing the country over to the Soviets. Like so many cast to the winds, McGovern knew it was folly from the very beginning, and despite having every right to be gratified at what followed, he would have gladly traded his prescience for the lives of the 50,000 American soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese that were snuffed out. He understood the cost, the context, and the eventual fallout, but he was ignored, as are all men who think with their brains instead of their engourged cocks. Nevertheless, McGovern did not have to prove his manhood to anyone, and he became an unfortunate casualty of his followers. While the 1972 Democratic convention was wonderfully diverse, harmonious, and spirited (a stark contrast to the chaos of ‘68), it appeared to many to be little more than a refuse pile. The film contains just such an assessment from the homespun Charles Kuralt, who derides the “afros, jeans, and facial hair” of many of the delegates in attendance. By contrast, Kuralt also notes, Republicans were aboard yachts, clad in suits and ties, and clearly – appropriately – not black. One convention actually looked like
America and, not liking what they saw, Americans went instead for the fantasy.
The film is part biography, part hagiography, and all rose-colored remembrance, but it matters little, as it’s so damned captivating and insightful. Things get so carried away, in fact, that many put forward the idea that had McGovern not selected Thomas Eagleton as his running mate (who had to bow out due to unrevealed “shock treatments” for depression), he would have won. The prolonged search for a replacement (which was publicly turned down by nearly everyone, that is until Sargent Shriver signed on for no apparent reason) did make the McGovern campaign look foolish, but it’s doubtful that even a McGovern/Christ ticket would have been enough. Dick Gregory – always delightful and full of anti-cracker good cheer – also suggests that George Wallace was shot by Nixonites because he would have once again siphoned off votes from the Republican candidate. While it is true that Wallace was a threat, he was less so in 1972 than 1968, and would-be assassin Arthur Bremer is a confirmed nut (I’ve read his diaries). Gregory also forgets that Bremer had initially targeted Nixon, and gave up because he couldn’t get close enough. It’s also true that Nixon wanted McGovern literature to be placed in Bremer’s apartment, but any larger conspiracy is an unproven pipe dream, the kind that appeals to those who believe history is but a series of “what ifs” that could have been entirely changed if only the heroes had been in charge. Again, nothing was stolen from anybody – 1972 came off exactly as the American people wanted.
Despite the navel-gazing and flower child self-importance, it is possible to take from this film the firm belief that McGovern would have impacted this country for the better had he been elected. His ideas sound quaint in our more cynical age, but what’s so outrageous about a guaranteed annual income? He had no business in politics, really, and given the party’s reaction to his candidacy (he won nearly all the primaries, yet the DNC still wanted to “install” their own man, much like 1968, where Humphrey took it all despite not winning a single primary), I’m shocked someone at the top didn’t find a bullet to send his way by August. And yet, there’s a lesson here, one that the film avoids, but remains irrefutable given what has followed. The Democrats, concerned only with power and influence, “allowed” McGovern to be the nominee, knowing he’d be slaughtered, so that the liberal wing could be extinguished forever. It’s much like 1996, when Republicans handed the torch to Bob Dole, knowing his loss would kill off the last remnants of Eisenhower Republicanism. Since McGovern, liberalism has vanished, and since Dole, evangelical, far-right conservatism has dominated the Republican establishment. It’s no conspiracy, just simple reality. And since 1972, tough ideas have been absent from campaigns, debates obsessively scripted non-events with all the educational value of a commercial, and the idea of a genuine underdog no longer a viable option. As such, it’s impossible to imagine a dark horse riding in from the mist, as the nominees are pretty much set well over a year before the primary season begins.
One last thought – I always liked Hubert Humphrey, what with the bold 1948 Democratic convention speech on civil rights, the decency, and the seemingly unimpeachable liberal credentials. He was too much of a lapdog for Johnson and ran a terrible campaign in 1968, but he seemed to escape any real criticism from history. After hearing about his behavior as a last-minute challenger to McGovern, however, I can only see him as a pathetic party hack who deserved the cancer that felled him. His attacks were not only desperate, but just as harsh as anything cooked up by the Nixon campaign, and his good name should not survive such a brazen attempt to pull the Democrats back to the center. He was childish, mean-spirited, and lied with impunity. Tomorrow wouldn’t be soon enough to tear down that monstrosity in
Minneapolis that bears his name.