Thursday, February 19, 2009
George McGovern is closer to the political center today than he was in 1972, when the country was substantially more left in many respects than it is today (or that it was just a few years ago). In his journey toward the center, McGovern reminds me of Barry Goldwater, who was at least as far to the right in 1964 as McGovern was to the left in 1972. Both were crushed, both moved to the center later in life, and both earned enormous and justified respect from their erstwhile political opponents. I respectfully submit that both men, in their older and wiser incarnations, would have made better presidents (leaving the limitations of age and stamina to one side) than when they ran for the office, and probably better than several of our most recent presidents.
I voted for McGovern in 1972, and as I have also moved to the right since then, I might vote for him today.
I heard Goldwater speak at a northeastern university in 1967, and though a liberal, as I was dissatisfied with LBJ, I was willing to listen to what Goldwater had to say. Goldwater did not impress me. Perhaps had I heard Goldwater today, I would have a different reaction.
Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were friends (they were both pilots, after all!), although they parted ways on politics. i remember they both did a "talking heads interview on "Nightline" about 15 years ago, and talked back and forth about Conservatism and Liberalism (American politics-wise).
George was a B-24 pilot, and Barry flew cargo flights "over the hump" into China in WWII. Barry's subnormal eyesight kept him from being a combat pilot, which is what he wanted.
Barry was friends with Hubert Humphrey too, although they too parted ways on politics. Barry said in his autobiography he had a lot of respect for Hubert's civil rights efforts.
Barry had a lot of shortcomings, but he was without much artifice. What you saw was what he was. He was a pretty honest man, though flawed like all of us.
Besides his hotel business which he struggled with, George McGovern also tragically lost his daughter to alcoholism. I doubt if George has tempered that much in his political ideals, but he has become more modest in his beliefs in what government can and should do.
Pop quiz: Who created the EPA?
On many issues, Richard Nixon could fit into the centrist side of the Democratic Party of today. To me Nixon was a near-great President. The fall of the Berlin Wall can be traced to what he and Henry Kissinger did under enormous pressure in the early 1970s.
I raise Nixon as a counter to McGovern. McGovern is someone I'd like to meet .. a great American, whatever your politics. He was a genuine WWII war hero, when there were few more dangerous things you could do than to volunteer to be a B-24 pilot. Even among this august company, McGovern distinguished himself. I was young in 1972, but I don't remember McGovern making a big deal out of his war record at the time.
Vietnam was much bigger than Iraq, by any measure. Most Americans aren't directly affected by Iraq. During the Vietnam era, most Americans had a younger male relative who was at some risk of ending up in a body bag because of it.
1968 was a horrible year ... every month brought a headline you wouldn't have believed. Nixon got elected by faking to the center of a very divided country. It worked for awhile ... so that McGovern got crushed in 1972 ... but the center didn't hold. As we got deeper into the 1970s, the problems got worse. Nixon got pushed out. We lost Vietnam. We had three really bad recessions.
Back then, things were so bad that our leaders were trying to hold the middle. Back then, our leaders didn't aim to be as divisive as they are now.
Over the last two decades our parties and politicians have gotten into a marketing game that plays on division. Karl Rove ... a direct marketer ... got good at this with small issues. Obama and Axelrod look like they're taking this into another dimension ... I fear they want class warfare because they believe their side will have the greater numbers.
So I'm not surprised that a McGovern now looks like a centrist who questions the Democrats. I also suspect that Nixon would have issues with the Republicans.
I believe that the problems we face now ... while a challenge ... aren't as bad as what we had to deal with in the 1970s ... but that we have two disfunctional corrupt parties and bad leadership because of it.
Short answer: Carter got elected as the anti-Nixon, much like Obama got elected as the anti-Bush. But Carter didn't come in with much of an agenda, let alone a radical one. For a short while we bought into the idea of a populist peanut farmer who was a DC outsider. Carter was also a Southern governor, which helped with the electoral map. But he was lucky to get elected.
Once in, Carter went wrong in responding to crisis. He chose ham-handed government intervention every time. But circumstance brought him there. I don't think he had a master plan for this. Carter couldn't see the wisdom of markets. Had he been elected into a time of normalcy, I don't think Carter would have done the things he did. He would have been boring ... kinda like another Southern Governor Demcrat ... Bill Clinton without the BJs. Carter appointed Volkler after all.
I covered Nixon, Humphrey, and Goldwater when I worked as a newspaperman.
After Humphrey left the Vice Presidency, he moved into a house with a backyard adjacent to McGovern's backyard.
During Humphrey's unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972, he told me that he and McGovern were good friends. Humphrey said, "We talk over the back fence all the time."
I liked Nixon, Goldwater, and Humphrey. I agreed with Nixon and Goldwater on most issues. But Humphrey was one the most compassionate politicians in 20th-century politics. I don't know McGovern.
In May of 1972 I left the newspaper business. Afterward, I had dinner with Carter and some Hollywood types in Los Angeles before Carter's first campaign for President. I told one of Carter's helpers — Jody Powell, I think; it was some guy with a girl's name — that Carter "could become President if he were a litte taller." (Actually Jimmy wasn't short; he just seemed that way to me.)
Well, Carter won. But I was right. He wasn't tall enough for the job. Even worse, he shrank over time.
Carter's legacy depends on being proved right about his actions in dealing with America's enemies worldwide and the Middle East in particular. If those bricks go, the whole wall tumbles, so he has to keep stacking those bricks up again.
I recall him complaining when Lord of the Rings came out in movie form that the film had undone his life's work in a few hours. I said to myself "I certainly hope so."