Monday, October 22, 2012

R.I. P. George McGovern

George McGovern died Sunday at the age of 90. I remain proud that my first vote for a presidential candidate was for him in 1972. I covered aspects of his campaign for the Boston Phoenix, and met him briefly. I've never seen as devastated an election night headquarters as I did in Boston that November, even though Massachusetts was the only state he won.

During that campaign I wrote about what reporters were digging up about Watergate, and about the Nixon administration which McGovern rightly called "the most corrupt in history." Not that anybody listened, until later when everyone was forced to listen. And so for years I proudly carried on my guitar case the bumper sticker, "Don't Blame Me, I'm From Massachusetts."

In his remembrance of George McGovern at Daily Kos, Meteor Blades (who is one of my touchstones for my generation) quoted this passage from McGovern's last book, which he published when nearing that age of 90:

"During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I've been labeled a 'bleeding-heart liberal.' It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society's ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction "Love the neighbor as thyself." —George S. McGovern, What It Means to Be a Democrat (2011)

This was his faith, the faith of a liberal. It's always seemed more than ironic to me that the original bleeding-heart liberal was Christ. That's the source of the phrase--it's the bleeding heart of Christ. George McGovern, a World War II bomber pilot from South Dakota, ran for president in 1972 to end the war in Vietnam. Because of the extent of his electoral loss, he became something of a disgraced figure. Yet he served honorably in the Senate--a stalwart public servant--for decades more. He continued to represent a flinty goodness--a faith in the better aspects of our nature, which don't really need or depend on the religious imagery. "You'd do the same for me" is a human faith, regardless of any injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself, which is psychologically dubious anyway.

  The other side of that leads to a vital sternness of principle. There is nothing mamby-pamby about this 1970 McGovern statement in support of his Senate amendment to end the war, which MB also quotes:

"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. 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."

Only Bobby Kennedy could have been so forthright and eloquent, and McGovern had been forced by his assassination to take up his banner. It was a terrible time. But his brave voice spoke for many in my generation, including me. And for that especially I remember him.  (Here's another summation of his career.)

Rest in peace, George McGovern.You led an honorable, thoughtful, courageous public life, and this country is better for your service.

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