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Remembering Sen. McGovern

October 22, 2012 - Jim Anderson
Sen. George McGovern once joked that he had wanted to run for president in the worst way — and that he had done exactly that.

In truth, he was a man of exceptional courage — on the battlefield and in the political arena. The following is from March 31, 2005:

The McGovern warning

Back in 1972, 29 million Americans voted for George McGovern for president. McGovern’s opponent, Richard Nixon, collected 47 million votes.

McGovern, a Democratic senator from South Dakota, carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia for a whopping 17 electoral votes. Nixon, the incumbent Republican, got 520. Ever since that disastrous defeat, McGovern has served as a kind of dashboard warning light for the Democratic Party. Whenever a candidate is perceived to stray leftwards, particularly on defense, the McGovern light starts to blink.

It happened, more or less, to Howard Dean in 2004.

The eventual Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, seemed so worried about setting off the McGovern light that he devoted the bulk of his convention speech to his Vietnam War heroics. Kerry’s lopsided speech instead set off a chain of mockery from Republican operatives that included wearing Band-Aid Purple Hearts during their own convention.

In what may go down as one of the more ingenious political feats in history, George W. Bush, the stay-at-home pilot, trumped the Silver Star-decorated Kerry as the more trusted war veteran.

McGovern, now 82, considers it a “political slur” that liberals are accused of being weak on defense.

Hard to say it hasn’t been effective.

In the wake of McGovern’s ’72 defeat, Republican domination on issues concerning the defense and security of America has been pervasive. Democrats have won just three of the eight presidential contests since.

The winning Democrats — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — are hardly remembered for their military prowess. Carter’s presidency was hobbled in its final months by the Iranian hostage crisis and a failed rescue mission. Clinton, who in 1999 predicted it was “highly likely” a terrorist group would attack on American soil within a few years, has been unable to shake his share of the blame for the 9-11 catastrophe.

In a recent essay in “The Nation,” McGovern tries once again, in what has been a lifetime political quest, to dispel the notion that he and other liberals are not interested in the defense and security of America.

After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, McGovern volunteered, as a college sophomore, for the Army Air Corps. He flew 35 missions as the pilot of a B-24 bomber and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He entered the U.S. Senate in 1963, 18 years after World War II. In the Senate, he would stake his political career on his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“Had I lost the courage to resist the enemy that I had demonstrated in World War II?” he asks.

“The truth is that it took more courage as a junior senator to stand up in the Senate and challenge the war policy of our government in Vietnam than it did to fly combat missions in World War II.”

That’s a remarkable statement, considering that half of the bomber crews flying with Lt. George Stanley McGovern over Germany did not survive.

As a senator, McGovern regarded U.S. military involvement in southeast Asia as politically, economically, militarily, and morally wrong. When he began speaking out against the war, public opinion polls were reporting that 80 percent of his constituents in South Dakota supported it.

Today, McGovern says, few Americans any longer disagree with his position.

“Looking back on those early years, after 18 years in the Senate and as a presidential nominee, I am as proud of my effort to stop the needless slaughter in Vietnam as I am of my participation in World War II,” he writes. “In both cases, I was guided by patriotism and love of my country. But men who had never known a day of military combat worked ceaselessly — especially in 1972 — to paint me as a weakling unwilling to defend the nation.”

McGovern, too, acknowledges that liberals are constantly subject to attack for being careful with the Pentagon budget.

“It seemed to me then, as it does today, that more is required for the defense and security of America than simply giving over what this year will be half of the federal discretionary budget to the Pentagon,” he writes. “But here again, a senator risks the political danger of being branded as weak on defense if he applies the same common-sense examination to military spending that is applied to other sources of American strength, such as health care, education, the environment or full employment.”

A common-sense examination of the war in Iraq would reveal that, so far, we have spent $10,000 for every man, woman and child in that nation of 25 million people.

A liberal-minded politician might be tempted to suggest that an administration skilled in diplomacy could have worked wonders in the Middle East with such taxpayer backing. Not to mention the inestimable savings in bloodshed.

To make that suggestion, of course, that same politician would also have to risk being painted as a weakling.

And, heaven forbid, have to watch the McGovern light start flashing.

Jim Anderson’s e-mail address is



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