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What we learned about America from George McGovern

Posted on November 17th, 2012 in Biography,Culture,War by Robert Miller

George McGovern

When George McGovern passed away a few weeks ago (October 21, 2012), my thoughts raced back to his campaign for the Presidency in 1972. By winning the Democratic Party nomination that year, McGovern began his campaign with a 3:00 AM acceptance speech that, perhaps like some of you,  I stayed up to watch.  I thought at the time that his successful nomination would lead to a competitive race and that he had a chance to unseat his opponent, Richard Nixon who was elected in 1968. At the time it seemed to me that Americans had a real choice that year for the Presidency and I hoped that McGovern’s views would lead to a political victory in November. I never anticipated the magnitude of the loss that McGovern would experience, the outcome of which began to radically change my views on the American electorate. Has the election of 2012 given us hope for a more liberal and progressive shift in American politics? Did McGovern arrive on the political scene one generation too early to properly resonate with the American public? McGovern’s promise to end the war in Vietnam was convincing enough that you had no doubt he would do it. In contrast Nixon had promised peace during the campaign of 1968,  but he secretly expanded the war. McGovern also talked about the elimination of poverty in America, something that seemed politically achievable and realistic then, but  is completely off the radar screen today. Those were the days of America’s great innocence, before we started to disassemble our manufacturing capacity, before the financialization of America created the financialization of our politics (though this process actually began in the election of 1896), before we were deeply polarized, before religious fundamentalists began insisting that America was a Christian nation and before we began to systematically destroy labor unions, including the importation of cheaper goods to undermine labor organization.  If my memory serves me correctly McGovern was the last Presidential candidate to talk about poverty and the poor: nowadays our candidates talk about the Middle Class primarily because they are falling into poverty, but those who are already there no longer get attention from politicians at the national level—it’s all about the fading Middle Class. The Census Bureau data released last year revealed that in 2010 the poverty rate in America was 15.1% or 46.2 million people (for a family of four that translates to an annual income of about $23,000).

McGovern in WW II He was a genuine American hero, who flew B-24 planes over the war theater in Europe. The early versions of those planes were difficult to fly because they lacked hydraulic controls and it took great strength to manage the slow lumbering, highly vulnerable planes. Coupled with long 8 to 9 hour bombing runs, crews would be exhausted and the flights were extremely dangerous. McGovern turned out to be a highly skilled B-24 pilot. On December 20, 1944, while flying a bombing mission over Czechoslovakia, his plane was hit by flak, with one engine out and another on fire (the B-24 had four engines), he managed to successfully land his plane on a small British Island airfield off the coast of Yugoslavia, saving the lives of his crew. He was eventually given the Distinguished Flying Cross for that landing; many previous attempts to put a large plane down on that airstrip had been unsuccessful. McGovern completed the 35 missions required for a combat tour and after the war, he piloted his plane back to the U.S. with his crew. It was during the war that McGovern decided he would become a history professor if he survived.  Wikipedia has a nice long history of George McGovern from which these facts were taken. As I was reading Wikipedia, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t really follow McGovern much after the 1972 campaign, though he continued to be against all wars and periodically spoke out defiantly on them (see below). But the Vietnam war, which served as the main basis for McGovern’s Presidential candidacy was over as Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. As our memory of McGovern began to fade, we were launched into the forces of Reaganism and Reagonomics that still grip our political and economic values of today.

Post-war and politics After WW II McGovern completed his undergraduate degree, supported by the GI Bill and obtained a Master’s Degree in history, followed by a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1953. His thesis was a 450 page recounting of The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913–1914 where he expressed his passion for the coal miners against the Rockefeller interests; his thesis adviser, noted historian Arthur S. Link, later said he had not seen a better student than McGovern in 26 years of teaching. McGovern returned to his roots and taught history and political science at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. He had a highly successful teaching career. Although he was Republican-leaning by the nature of his family background, he had admired FDR during the war and gravitated towards more progressive, liberal politics, created by the gravitational forces of the time.  He helped revitalize the Democratic party in South Dakota and became a shrewd political organizer; in 1956 he entered politics by running for Congress and was elected by a narrow margin, the first Democrat elected to Congress from South Dakota in 22 years.

McGovern in the Senate In 1962 he ran for the U.S. Senate and won his seat by 597 votes. As the Vietnam war gained momentum under Johnson in 1968, McGovern was asked if he would run against Johnson in the primary, but he turned that offer down. But when he saw that Nixon (who was elected in 1968 against Humphrey) still pursued the war, he came out against the Nixon administration. The McGovern–Hatfield Amendment was a rider to the annual military budget bill, sponsored by McGovern and Republican Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Its purpose was to terminate funding for the war and bring the troops home by the end of 1970. During the floor debate of the bill, McGovern said

  • Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

One can only imagine the impact that this statement had on McGovern’s fellow Senators, most of whom supported the war. When one member of the Senate told McGovern that he was offended by his remarks, McGovern shot back “That’s what I meant to do.” Not surprisingly, the amendment was defeated, but McGovern became even more radicalized by the defeat and was more determined to end a war which he considered immoral, shedding innocent blood and a bad policy of needless exploitation. The bill came up again in 1971 and McGovern took his name off the bill because so many Senators had been offended by his previous remarks. Although the American public was by then in favor of the bill and against the war, it was voted down with very little change in votes from its first defeat. It was the second defeat of the bill that convinced McGovern the only way to end the war was to replace the President (Nixon).

A run for the Presidency of the United States McGovern announced his candidacy for the United States Presidency in January, 1971, a year earlier than most candidates would typically declare. At that time, a Gallup poll ranked him fifth among Democratic candidates for the nomination. He announced early to give him time to overcome the obscurity that any Presidential candidate from South Dakota would face. Senator Gary Hart was McGovern’s campaign manager. His plan was to confront the leading candidate (Ed Muskie from Maine) in only a few primaries. As Muskie’s campaign faltered, Hubert Humphrey joined the race and George Wallace became a factor when he won a big primary in Florida. But McGovern’s victory in the Wisconsin primary expanded his appeal to blue-collar workers and he gained in visibility with the victory. McGovern won in California and appeared to clinch the nomination with delegates picked up in the New York primary. It was a bruising campaign and along the way Humphrey labeled McGovern as favoring “amnesty, abortion and acid,” and his polling numbers against Nixon started to decline. McGovern won the nomination, but due to challenges and delays in selecting a vice-presidential candidate, his acceptance speech was delayed until 3:00 AM and his television audience had declined from 70 million to about 15 million. It has often been said that McGovern gave his best-ever speech early that morning.

McGovern’s Vice President McGovern wanted Ted Kennedy as his running mate, but Kennedy turned him down. He selected a relatively unknown Senator, Thomas Eagleton from Missouri (about whom I have written previously) who was in his first term in the Senate. Just a few weeks after the Democratic convention, it came to light that Eagleton had suffered from depression and had been treated with electroshock therapy. Initially, McGovern announced that “I am 1,000 percent for Tom Eagleton and have no intention of dropping him from the ticket.” But pressure from party insiders, doubts expressed in the press and consultation with psychiatrists led McGovern, 6 days later, to drop Eagelton from the ticket, replacing him with Sargeant Shriver, Ted Kennedy’s brother-in-law (and future father-in-law to Arnold Schwarzenegger). McGovern himself said that he never recovered from his “1000 percent” statement; the election that year was one of the most lopsided in American history, in which McGovern won only Massachusetts: the final electoral college result was 520 to 17. By the time the election took place it was clear that McGovern had no chance of an election victory; many Southern Democrats denounced him.  Meanwhile, Nixon had already sealed the fate of his Presidential future with the Watergate break-in of the National Democratic Headquarters in June of 1972, but the significance of that event was not explored by the press until after the election; yet Nixon resigned his office in 1974. McGovern successfully ran for the Senate in 1974, but was defeated in 1980 as the conservative movement began to assert itself in American politics. It was the start of Reaganomics.  During the 1972 campaign when I was passionate in favoring McGovern over Nixon, I was shocked to see that many of my academic colleagues thought I was crazy, yet I couldn’t help but wonder whose political views were misaligned. After McGovern’s defeat, the Republicans tried to use him as the poster child for all Democrats, painting them as incompetent and out of step with mainstream America. In this respect there are many similarities between McGovern’s campaign of 1972 and John Kerry’s campaign of 2004 and the swift boat campaign that helped destroy Kerry’s candidacy.

Nixon’s election in 1968, running against Hubert Humphrey, was also a national loss, though Humphrey, until very late in the campaign, was under orders from President Lyndon Johnson to keep his alignment in support of the Vietnam war and only in the last month or so of the campaign was he given approval to voice his true opposition to the war, something he felt from the beginning of his Vice-Presidency (1964). But the election of 1968 was a bitter and confused election for Democrats. The street fighting during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago had shattered the party and it was difficult to sort out the motivations behind the vote outcome. The election of 1972 was different: Nixon was a corporatist war-monger and McGovern wanted to end the war and bring the troops home.  Yes, Nixon had been to China and broke the ice for future relations, but that was to solve the Vietnam War, as it became apparent to Nixon and Kissinger that a negotiated peace with North Vietnam would have to go through China. Nixon had promised peace in 1968, which may have accounted for his narrow victory, but once elected he expanded the war and initiated secret bombing in Laos and Cambodia. When Nixon was elected, the Paris peace talks were already underway. What Nixon did achieve is that after he was elected 21,000 more American soldiers would die and today no one can really say what they died for. The Right, looking to blame someone on the Left for the loss, concluded that defeat in Vietnam was the direct result of the liberal cowards and peaceniks at home.

After McGovern left the senate he lived an exemplary life. He never surrendered his opposition to war. He fought the battles as best he could and didn’t realize until after his failed Presidential election, that he was fighting the corporatist control center of America, those who intended to create an American hegemony, to rule the world generate new markets for the business class, interested in creating a new form of international wealth. It turned out, however, that the new wealth they created had a lot more to do with the transfer of wealth from the poor and Middle Class rather than the creation of new wealth. In that sense, Vietnam was insignificant, except that the eternal flame against communism needed to be burning bright in order for the corporatist state to maintain the level of fear required to convince Americans that we are fighting an enemy who wanted to enslave us. You can still hear these words in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—we are still supposed to be fighting communists, even though we have to overturn rocks to find them. China doesn’t qualify as a communist threat, simply because communism is a system that wants to destroy capitalism, not to tame it.

McGovern as a writer McGovern wrote seven books during his lifetime. One of them, Out of Iraq by William R. Polk and George McGovern was a book that I commented on previously; it was a highly readable book, one which gets right to the point of disengaging from Iraq, something that is now underway through the combination of Obama’s political commitment to end that war in favor of the “right war,” and the insistence on the part of Iraq not to agree to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) so U.S. troops could stay indefinitely.  McGovern never gave up his distaste for war or his dislike towards those that pursued them.  In January 2008, he wrote an “Op-ed” in the Washington Post in which he called for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, charging that they had violated the U.S. Constitution, transgressed national and international law, and repeatedly lied to the American people. The subtitle of the article read “Nixon Was Bad. These Guys Are Worse.” Who better to understand warfare than a genuine American WW II hero, the last war in which America could claim victory, unless you want to include the invasion of Grenada or Panama to catch Noriega? If we accomplished victories as a result of Gulf War I and II, someone needs to point out what we won (evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait (I) and then forcing him into a rabbit hole (II)?). McGovern’s last book What It Means to Be a Democrat was published earlier this year and during the book promotion tour, McGovern entered a hospice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where he died October 21, 2012 at age 90. Buried somewhere along side him is my naivete about the goal of American politics as it was his campaign that educated me to a better understanding that we live in a culture that wants to rule the world rather than one that wants to adapt to it. Those that put us on our current trajectory of American hegemony will have to explain why the Earth seems to be going through an immune response to reject the human species from the planet.


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How will Obama be changed by this election?

Posted on November 10th, 2012 in Politics by Robert Miller

Obama ran an excellent campaign as his efficient, polished organization got the vote out, particularly in the battleground states, giving him an  Electoral College victory of 332, now that Florida went into his win column. By the time Mitt Romney conceded the election at 1 AM, Obama had a 250,000 popular vote lead, which advanced to about 2 million by dawn. His margin of victory  was bigger than John Kennedy’s in 1960 (303 electoral votes, popular vote margin of 112,827), bigger than Richard Nixon’s in 1968 (301 electoral votes, popular vote plurlaity of 512,000), bigger than Jimmy Carter’s in 1976 (297 electoral votes, popular vote margin of 1,683,247), bigger than George W. Bush’s in 2000 (271 electoral votes and a popular vote loss of 543,816). After the 2004 election, ( 286 Electoral College votes) Bush said “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style.” Unfortunately for Bush, he wanted to spend some of that political capital to change Social Security to a voucher system and got nowhere, as he tried to restore some of what he destroyed in his first term as President. I don’t expect Obama to fall into the “mandate trap” if for no other reason than he has a lot of constituents out there to remind him if his mission should deviate from the new plan. From here on out his actions will be magnified through the eyes of the constituents who elected him, much more so than the previous election.

For the 2008 election, Obama adopted the “audacity of hope,” as a campaign moniker,  but once he stalled, giving the Republicans time to organize into an opposition, which mostly took the form of Congress voting against most of his ideas and once Brown took over Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts (which Elizabeth Warren won back in this election), breaking Democratic control of the Senate, they refused to vote on many of Obama’s cabinet and judgeship appointments.  The moment Obama was elected in 2008, the Republicans developed a strategy to be against his legislative agenda and as Mitch McConnell, minority leader in the senate pointed out to “keep him as a one-term President.”  But the election of 2012 was all about Obama’s ground game and his logistics. The huge resources that conservative money put into the campaign, now unlimited thanks to Citizens United, was primarily spent on TV adds, which proved of marginal value and as they were unable to thwart the Obama organization that ran over them like a giant Mack truck. Karl Rove now says the big money that he helped put together prevented an even bigger landslide victory for Obama. But, given the resources put up against Obama, his easy victory remains an astonishing lesson about the misidentified value of massive resources spent on elections, so much so that all the available TV commercial time in some regions was consumed by political advertising, which naturally invoked the concept of campaign fatigue. The fact that these ads were funded by money from out-of-state fat cats further alienated many voters. And voters resented 24 hour campaigning. For the Republicans, the downside of 24 hour campaigning was to form a bubble around themselves and begin to believe their own rhetoric and campaign hype about a close race. When Fox News called Ohio for Obama, Karl Rove went into a long rambling babble about why it couldn’t be so, citing reports of Republican districts in Ohio that hadn’t yet reported, when the opposite was true–it was the Democratic counties near the cities that had not fully reported. As Republicans huddled under the bubble of their own creation about a close race and entered into the arena of electoral denial,  Obama coasted to a relatively easy victory such that the outcome in Florida and Ohio did not determine the Presidency, as those two states had done sequentially in 2000 and 2004. It was not a long night. The election was over by midnight EST.

Here in Minnesota, in what was perhaps the most expensive Congressional campaign in the country, Michele Bachmann, running in a new more conservative district, won 50.4% of the vote against DFL (Democratic-Farm-Labor Party) candidate Jim Graves. Unfortunately, Minnesotans will continue to be embarrassed by the rantings of a crazed Tea Party member for at least another two years. Her main campaign theme was how often she had stepped across the isle to work with Democrats to get things done (NOT!).

Here in Minnesota, the State House and Senate were taken over by the DFL (Democratic-Farm-Labor) party and together with a popular Democratic Governor (Mark Dayton), we could begin to see the state back to its more Democratic roots, when the culture of Minnesota seemed a lot healthier.  This will be the first time in 22 years that the DFL party has a political trifecta. When I moved to Minnesota in 1988, I thought I was moving to Hubert Humphrey’s state, but instead I found the DFL party in shambles. Now we have elected good, knowledgeable Democrats, many of whom are progressive and sensitive to the needs of the state, with no interest in engaging in the cultural wars of Minnesota. For the time being, they are over. With Amy Klobuchar re-elected to the senate by a wide margin and Al Franken now comfortable in his Senate seat, the state of Minnesota may be in a position to contribute more substantively to the national debate, rather than turn inward as we did with Tim Pawlenty as governor, when he tried to convert Minnesota into Mississippi.  No one seems to miss Pawlenty. Should you be interested in reading further on Pawlenty’s failed governorship in Minnesota you can read more here.

I was proud to be a Minnesotan this election, primarily because two constitutional amendments went down to defeat. The first was to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman and the second was a constitutional amendment to establish a Voter-ID law. Of course we all know that Voter-ID laws are designed to suppress turnout of Democrats more than Republicans. Just two days before the election, polling data indicated that the Voter-ID amendment would pass, but in fact both amendments went down to defeat. Apparently a much greater than anticipated turnout of young voters determined the outcome, though I haven’t seen this confirmed in post-election analysis, but I am looking forward to seeing those numbers. I haven’t had this much pride in Minnesotans since I moved here.

Obama’s resounding, impressive election victory on Tuesday was achieved with the support of labor unions, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics  and young people. Polling data from Edison Research published by the NYT  on November 8 was based on exit polls which showed that Romney got 59% of the White vote, Obama got 93% of the Black vote, 71% of the Hispanic vote and 73% of the Asian vote; when age groups are taken into account Obama got 60% of the 18-29 yr old and 52% of the 30 to 44 yr old; Romney got 51% of the 45 to 64 yr old and 56% of those 65 and older. Among women, Obama got 55% while Romney got 52% of male voters. It seems clear that if the Republicans want to gain larger majorities with young people, they should help to implement policies that would make them better off economically and then they might have a reason to switch parties, but without that kind of improvement, they will surely see their margins dwindle through their own failure to look through the economic window they created. I will go to my grave trying to understand how a candidate for the American Presidency can make a fortune by destroying American manufacturing firms and still be a viable candidate for the office. On the whole, the American voters remain uneducated and ignorant and I often wonder whether elections are won or lost by the whimsical events of American politics and nothing more sophisticated than that. Do we disconnect policies from candidates and if so, in which way do we disarticulate the two?

Obama must recognize that he owes his re-election to hard working union members and minority groups. He now has an opportunity to cement those relationships and at the same time head the Republican Party to midterm election defeat in 2014. For example if he can get Congress to vote on the Dream Act, it will surely reinforce his relationship with the Hispanic voters to whom he must demonstrate allegiance. And he must recognize that the Blacks and Hispanics have been more devastated by this economic recession/depression than any other two groups. Rebuilding the economy with a good jobs program is one way to begin the payback, and while that will be difficult to get through Congress, he needs to stop triangulating with the Republicans and coming out on the bottom rather than the top. Perhaps he came to grips with his need to be more confrontational between the first and second debates, when he was far more aggressive for the second and insistent on pinning the tail on the elephant. No doubt his first challenge is to fix the disastrous Federal Budget sequestration scheduled for January 3 and to do this, he will have to work with the lame duck congress who insist on no new taxes. If he does not accomplish an agreement with the House, then the Bush tax cuts will expire, including the payroll taxes that benefited lower income people. If that should happen it is likely the economy will slip back into a recession and that too should appear as a red target on the backs of the Republicans: but Obama will have to paint it on them.  Obama is faced with difficult choices, but to give away the initiative he won in the 2012 election before his second term even begins would be an indication to all, that we will have four more years of triangulatory behavior. We will know the answer to this question in the next few weeks. In the meantime, let’s celebrate a meaningful victory and hope the President knows from where the votes came. I have been uplifted by this election because at least here in Minnesota, we have the opportunity to begin shifting the pendulum back to an era in which everything seemed better and we had at least the beginnings of an economic strategy that could lift all boats when the tide came in.

Speaking of tides, as Obama said, we will have to fix the causes of Hurricane Sandy and get to work on that immediately. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, has an article in the NYRB describing a message from the science of global climate change as it relates to Hurricane Sandy. Global climate change is too late to prevent, so we had better start by learning to adapt to the changes that are coming, while at the same time working to reduce the long-term disaster of dramatically increased global temperatures as we get closer to the end of this century. It is not possible to think of the challenge ahead as anything other than a two-pronged strategy: one for the inevitable problems we will face and the other to prevent a more disastrous outcome for the future of our children if we do not act immediately.




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