The U.S. Secret Service charged with protecting Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Party presidential candidate running against the incumbent President Richard Nixon, once spoke to me before the one big rally McGovern would have in Kansas City during that fall campaign.
The local Democratic Party organizers had put me in charge of fundraising there. This would mean at times being behind the speakers’ dais and near the candidate so I had to have a security clearance.
Tagged with a very discrete colour-coded Secret Service lapel pin on rally day, I obviously had passed muster and made my way back and forth across the security cordon in the jammed rotunda of the Kansas City’s Union Station on the cool October night of the rally. Thousands of people listened to McGovern as he shared his vision of the kind of country he strove for as a score of young volunteers with distinctive hats and McGovern-Shriver-stickered ice cream pails made their way through the crowd collecting much needed political donations.
The enthusiasm, and energy in the crowd was palpable. As McGovern’s hometown South Dakota newspaper, the Mitchell Daily Republic, noted the Sunday before last on the occasion of McGovern’s death at 90, “McGovern was an insurgent candidate fueled by the energy of people who felt newly empowered and enfranchised, including women, racial minorities and young people (the 1972 general election was the first after the voting age was lowered to 18).”
His anti-Vietnam War stance and his deeply ingrained social gospel concern for the poor and marginalized, as son of a prairie Methodist pastor, marked him as a candidate with principles and conviction.
“At the announcement of his presidential candidacy in 1971,” the Daily Republic reporter wrote, “McGovern spelled out his philosophy: ‘A public figure can perform no greater service than to lay bare the malfunctions of our society, try honestly to confront our problems in all their complexity, and stimulate the search for solutions.”
McGovern’s stance lost the support of the much of his party’s elite, who were more concerned with patronage and privilege than principle. They sought raw power before policies that might actually address the problems rooted in the emerging gap between rich and poor.
After the rally back in a downtown hotel room, as a young law student and I counted the thousands in cash, one of the old-line national party people came in for the money. With still several hundred dollars in coins yet to count, he told us not to bother and just keep it for our troubles. At that comment we refused to hand over any of the money to him and insisted in placing it in the hotel safe until our local campaign head was notified. It seemed to us that no matter how idealistic the campaign and volunteers like us were, the system forcefully attempted to distort our aims.
Senator George McGovern lost the 1972 election 17 to 520 electoral votes for Nixon, who would be forced by his complicity in corruption and deceit to resign in disgrace less than two years later. This, to date, is the most lopsided defeat in U.S. electoral history. “McGovernism” has come to refer to “the most idealistically liberal – and electorally doomed – wing of the Democratic Party.”
McGovern accepted his party’s nomination for presidency at the open 1972 Democratic National Convention in Florida with, in part, the following words: “Together we will call America home to the ideals that nourished us from the beginning. From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America. From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America. From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick – come home, America. Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.”
Now as we watch the corporate, big money corruption infecting the current electoral process in the USA and listen to the stunningly narrow and ideologically blinded political discourse that seems to dominate debate or the lack of it there, the road home to those foundational ideals that McGovern espoused seems oh so much longer.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.