George McGovern’s death makes me yearn for real Democrats

George McGovern, War Critic Routed by Nixon in 1972

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The death today of George McGovern, a progressive who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 (and who is shown above right campaigning in 1972 with his first running mate, Thomas Eagleton), only reminds me, shortly before another presidential election, how far the Democratic Party has fallen.

It’s a perverse fact of politics that the possession of intelligence and compassion (concomitantly known as wisdom) often, if not usually, dooms an individual who is running for high public office.

I write that with the death of real Democrat George McGovern* in mind.

I was only four years old when in 1972 Democrat McGovern lost to incumbent Repugnican President Richard M. Nixon in a landslide. A landslide — and look how wonderful Nixon’s second term turned out to be: It was the Democratic Party’s operations that Nixon’s operatives were snooping into in June 1972 in the Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to Tricky Dick Nixon’s resignation in disgrace in 1974. (Nixon’s remains the only presidential resignation in U.S. history.)

The masses often get it wrong.

I don’t remember McGovern’s presidential campaign, of course. The first sitting president I remember seeing on television was Gerald Ford, who followed the disgraced-by-Watergate Nixon, and I seem to remember seeing a perpetually stumbling and falling Ford parodied by Chevy Chase on “Saturday Night Live” more than seeing the actual Ford himself on TV.

I remember seeing also Jimmy Carter on TV, and of course I remember Ronald Reagan and all of those who have followed him. But during Carter’s first and only term, I was an elementary school student who was interested in “Star Wars,” not in politics, and it wasn’t until Reagan’s eight-year reign during most of the 1980s that my political identity started to form.

My father always has been apolitical, not giving a rat’s ass about anything outside of his immediate personal universe, and my mother is one of those “swing voters” who seem to make their presidential picks based upon the logic of a Magic 8 Ball. (My parents reside in Arizona, where they belong, and I in California, where I belong.)

My point in bringing up my parents — which makes me feel like Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka when the topic of his parents is brought up — is to illustrate that neither of them even attempted to influence my own political views, with one of them being apolitical and the other being politically muddled at best, so the fact that I grew into a left-winger in the red state of Arizona, which is not conducive to the development of little “socialists,” suggests to me that a progressive political viewpoint is the natural path of human development, unless that path is obstructed (such as by committed right-wing parents who probably should be committed, a “Christo”fascist social environment, etc.) and the journeyer cannot overcome those obstructions, as I was able to do.

The first presidential race that I remember caring about was the 1984 race. I was in high school at the time, and I supported Democrat Walter Mondale over the re-election of Reagan, and I don’t know if I even could have articulated very well why I preferred Mondale over Reagan, since it certainly wasn’t my parents who influenced my preference for Mondale. If memory serves it was a visceral thing, my visceral, intuitive identification of Mondale as the truly wise (again, the compassionate and intelligent) candidate and Reagan as the poser, the phony.

Of course, in 1984 the very first presidential candidate whom I supported (not with money, because as a minor I didn’t have any [and are minors allowed to contributed to presidential campaigns anyway?], and not with my vote, because I wasn’t yet 18), very much like McGovern had done in 1972, lost to the Repugnican incumbent in a landslide.

Four years later, in 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, whom I supported and voted for as a college student (I remember having to sell my plasma as a starving college student, so I’m pretty certain that I wasn’t able to give Dukakis any money), performed barely better against George H. W. Bush than Mondale had performed against Reagan four years earlier.

Um, yeah, so I wasn’t off to a great start in life in my presidential picks, and for 12 long years as I was politically budding, I suffered through first Ronald Reagan and then George Bush I. (I never will forget graduating from college with a worthless degree but with plenty of student-loan debt during The First George Bush Recession of the late 1980s-early 1990s. These early socioeconomic experiences tend to color your political outlook for life, as the Great Depression very apparently colored my Scrooge-like maternal grandmother’s outlook for the rest of her life.)

Then in the 1990s came pseudo-Democrat Bill Clinton, who, although he benefitted from a rebounding economy (how much of the 1990s’ economic rebound was from his policies and how much of it was from the natural course of economic events I’m not certain), gave us such gems as NAFTA, welfare “reform” and DOMA — oh, yeah, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, because having an intern blow you in the Oval Office never can blow up in your face.

So the first Democratic presidential candidate whom I supported — I rooted for and voted for Clinton in 1992 and in 1996 — and who actually won the presidential election was the so-called Democrat who destroyed the Democratic Party by dragging it so far to the right that the Democratic Party today looks like Repugnican Lite. Yay!

Bill Clinton benefitted from a three-way race in 1992, and won with a plurality, not a majority, of the popular vote, which today’s Democratic hacks forget or ignore. (Dems deny that third-party candidate Ross Perot, who garnered a-very-impressive-for-a-third-party-candidate 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, harmed George H. W. Bush’s re-election bid, but it seems to me that the majority of Perot’s supporters were right of center and that most of them would have voted for Bush over Clinton. [If memory serves, my Magic-8-Ball-wielding mother voted for Perot, and my guess is that had Perot not been a choice, she would have voted for Bush or would not have voted at all.])

I get it that after a string of Democratic presidential defeats — George McGovern, Jimmy Carter (denied a second term), Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis — and after long time in the political wilderness during the Nixon/Ford, Reagan and Bush I years — the Democratic Party apparently wanted to pull away, far away, from the egghead image.

Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Repugnican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and again in 1956 yet sought (but did not get) the Democratic Party’s nomination yet again in 1960, seems to have been the eggheaded Democrats’ founding father, at least of our modern era, and indeed, Stevenson was the last presidential candidate from either of the two major parties who, despite having lost a presidential election, was nominated by his party to run in the very next presidential election. (These days, losing a presidential election very apparently means that you’ll never get another shot at your party’s presidential nomination again.)

The last Democratic egghead who lost — but who, surreally, actually won — a presidential election was, of course, Al Gore, who in 2000 won 48.4 percent of the popular vote to George W. Bush’s 47.9 percent, for a difference of more than 500,000 votes.** Only in the United States of America could the candidate who won fewer votes be made — crowned — president by the U.S. Supreme Court and his cronies (such as his brother, who was governor of the pivotal state that he “won,” and the chief elections official of that state who made damn sure that he “won” it), and this is yet another of those wonderful, deeply anti-democratic events during my lifetime that has shaped my current outlook.

So Al Gore’s win/loss in 2000 might have been the death knell for the eggheaded Democratic presidential candidate, but isn’t there some middle ground between a Bill Clinton and an Adlai Stevenson?

You might argue that President Barack Obama more or less fills that middle ground, since he’s known as both intelligent and non-nerdy (and, importantly, highly unlikely to be blown by an intern), but today we have Obama in a race for re-election that shouldn’t be nearly as close as it is, and probably wouldn’t be as close as it is had Obama spent his first two years in office actually delivering upon his ubiquitous 2008 promises of hope and change while both houses of Congress were controlled by his own party, a rare alignment of the stars that never should be squandered, and that even George W. Bush, dipshit that he is, did not squander. (Nor did Bush II, dipshit that he is, shit and piss all over his own fucking base, which seems to be the Obama administration’s and the Obamabots’ favorite fucking pastime.)

In Barack Obama, other than in empty rhetoric and false promises, we see precious little of the spirit of George McGovern that used to infuse the Democratic Party. In Obama we see instead the cynical, opportunistic, center-right spirit of Bill Clinton, an approach that the modern Democratic Party argues is the only approach that works, yet in actuality has no track record of effectiveness.

Again, in my book, Bill Clinton won in 1992 in no small part because of “spoiler” Ross Perot, and again, in 1992 Clinton garnered a plurality (43 percent of the popular vote), not a majority. (The only other president during my lifetime who garnered not even a full 44 percent of the popular vote was Richard Nixon in 1968, the year of my birth.)

Clinton again failed to get a full majority even in 1996 (he got 49 percent of the popular vote), and in his 1996 (and pre-Lewinsky) re-election bid he benefitted from having an incredibly wooden Repugnican opponent in Bob Dull — er, Dole — and he benefitted from a strong economy, which, again, I am not certain how much resulted from his economic policies and how much resulted from the natual ebb and flow of the nation’s economy.

Let’s reflect upon the fact that Barack Obama garnered 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008, which was better that Bill Clinton or George W. Bush ever did in the elections from 1992 through 2004. Obama’s 53 percent in 2008 bested Jimmy Carter’s and John F. Kennedy’s take of the popular vote, too.

How did Obama do it?

Again, he ran on a progressive (if too-vague) platform of hope and change. That was the bait.

Obviously, if Obama hadn’t perceived that that was what the majority of Americans wanted, that wouldn’t have been what he promised.

That progressivism is what the majority of Americans wanted, and that progressivism is what Obama Version 2008 promised (even if gauzily), even though his hacks (the Obamabots) love to engage in historical revision and deny that fact, but what Obama has delivered as president is just more Clintonesque, center-right, “bipartisan,” Repugnican-ass-licking bullshit, replete with Billary Clinton as his secretary of state and Bill Clinton as his current campaign surrogate.

So the news of George McGovern’s death early this morning at a hospice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at age 90 only underscores for me, with another presidential election only a little more than two weeks away, the fact that the Democratic Party of today is only a shadow of what it used to be.

I lament that the only presidents named George whom I got during my lifetime are surnamed Bush, and I have to wonder how George McGovern felt about the likes of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who turned the Democratic Party into the center-right, corporate-ass-licking, lesser-of-two-evils monstrosity of a fundraising machine that it is today.

And I can’t see how I can honor the memory of George McGovern by blackening the oval next to the name of Barack Obama on the mail-in ballot that sits just yards from me right now as I type this sentence, yet unmarked.

*Wikipedia’s entry on George McGovern reports, in part:

George Stanley McGovern (July 19, 1922-October 21, 2012) was a historian, author and U.S. representative, U.S. senator and the Democratic Party presidential nominee in the 1972 presidential election.

McGovern grew up in Mitchell, South Dakota…. [After he fought in World War II] he gained degrees from Dakota Wesleyan University and Northwestern University, culminating in a Ph.D., and was a history professor. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1956 and re-elected in 1958. After a failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 1960, he was elected there in 1962.

As a senator, McGovern was an exemplar of modern American liberalism. He became most known for his outspoken opposition to the growing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He staged a brief nomination run in the 1968 presidential election as a stand-in for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy.

The subsequent McGovern-Fraser Commission fundamentally altered the Democratic presidential nominating process, by greatly increasing the number of caucuses and primaries and reducing the influence of party insiders.

The McGovern-Hatfield Amendment sought to end the Vietnam War by legislative means but was defeated in 1970 and 1971.

McGovern’s long-shot, grassroots-based 1972 presidential campaign found triumph in gaining the Democratic nomination but left the party badly split ideologically, and the failed vice-presidential pick of Thomas Eagleton undermined McGovern’s credibility. In the general election McGovern lost to incumbent Richard Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in American history. Re-elected senator in 1968 and 1974, McGovern was defeated in a bid for a fourth term in 1980.

Throughout his career, McGovern was involved in issues related to agriculture, food, nutrition, and hunger….

Wikipedia also notes that anyone running against the incumbent Nixon would have had an uphill battle anyway, but after high-profile Democrats such as Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey and other Democrats declined to be McGovern’s running mate, McGovern picked U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, whom McGovern later replaced with Kennedy clan in-law Sargent Shriver after Eagleton’s history of treatment for mental illness came to light, casting doubt on his fitness to handle the presidency if it came to that, and raising doubts about McGovern’s judgment.

Wikipedia notes that Team McGovern didn’t vet Eagleton thoroughly and that Eagleton and his wife intentionally kept Eagleton’s hospitalizations for mental illness from McGovern. Bloomberg notes that less than a week after McGovern had proclaimed that he supported Eagleton “1,000 percent,” he replaced Eagleton with Shriver.

Bloomberg notes that McGovern later wrote in his autobiography, “I did what I had to, but the Eagleton matter ended whatever chance there was to defeat Richard Nixon in 1972. In the minds of many Americans the Eagleton episode convicted me of incompetence, vacillation, dishonesty and cold calculation, all at the same time.”

Bloomberg notes that “The Eagleton misstep ushered in today’s rigorous vetting of potential vice presidential candidates,” which doesn’t really explain what happened with Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin, but whatever…

**You might argue that the last Democratic egghead who ran for president actually was John Kerry in 2004, and while he does hail from Massachusetts, a la egghead Michael Dukakis (indeed, Kerry was Dukakis’ lieutenant governor), Vietnam vet Kerry ran such a war-hero campaign (the “swiftboaters'” defamation of him notwithstanding) that, in my estimation, anyway, he fairly escaped being branded as an egghead.

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