McGovern: He Never Sold His Soul
McGovern, even before he ran for president, held heroic stature for us. In 1970 he attached to a military procurement bill the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, which would have required, through a cutoff of funding, a withdrawal of all American forces from Indochina. The amendment did not pass, although the majority of Americans supported it. McGovern denounced on the Senate floor the politicians who, by refusing to support the amendment, prolonged the war. We instantly understood the words he spoke. They were the words of a preacher.
“Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave,” he said. “This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval [hospitals] 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. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. 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.”
McGovern’s moral condemnation was greeted in the chamber with stunned silence. When one senator told McGovern he was personally offended by his remarks, McGovern answered: “That’s what I meant to do.”
Here was a politician who cared more for his country and for human decency than he did for his political ambitions or his career. Here was someone I could believe in. I, at 15 years old, was not about to lose this moment. I stuffed envelopes, handed out fliers and made phone calls until my dialing fingers were red and swollen. That was the summer of my political awakening. It taught me about the venal nature of power, the clever lies used by the power elite to manipulate the masses, and the deep fear and loathing these elites have of those, like McGovern, who possess the personal integrity and moral courage to speak the truth. The business titans, the generals, the defense contractors, the wealthy, Richard Nixon and the Democratic Party establishment set out to destroy McGovern. They failed.
The tiny campaign headquarters in Hamburg, N.Y., was chronically short of money. We survived on pizza. Workers slept on the floor. I mingled that summer with angry Vietnam veterans, hippies, anti-war activists, union organizers and feminists. Tattered copies of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Soul on Ice,” “The Other America” and “The Wretched of the Earth” were shoved into my hands by older campaign workers. None of us, until that summer, had a voice in Democratic or national politics. And the Democratic establishment, once that summer ended, rewrote the nomination rules to make sure none of us ever had a voice again.
When the 1972 Democratic convention, the first and last open political convention in American history, took place in July at the Miami Beach Convention Center, I was being sullenly dragged to New Mexico for our family vacation. Our Nimrod popup camper had been set up in the desert at Ghost Ranch. I was determined to hear McGovern’s nomination and his acceptance speech. I took the keys to my father’s Impala, lay down on the front seat looking up at the canopy of stars and followed the chaotic and glorious convention on the radio. McGovern spoke at 2 a.m. in Miami. It was midnight in New Mexico. He closed with these words:
And then the battery on my father’s Impala went dead. My father, the next morning, walked down the dirt road to find someone with jumper cables.
The history books will tell you Richard Nixon won the 1972 election, that George McGovern went down to the worst defeat of any presidential candidate in history. But those who write history do not take into account the moral or the good, what is right or what is wrong, what endures and what does not. And even the historians have to acknowledge that Nixon’s victory was attained by lies and fraudulent propaganda, by dirty tricks, by state crimes and acts of theft and burglary. Nixon, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, may have embodied the “successful” politician but he “was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions.”
“George McGovern, for all his mistakes… ,” Thompson went on, “understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose…. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”
I had dinner in New York a few years ago with McGovern and Rick MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. McGovern and I spoke about our experience in war and the lies, deceit and empty patriotism used by politicians and war profiteers to sustain war, of our life as the sons of preachers and of the time each of us had spent as seminary students. I told him about the summer I spent working for him, about the thrill of hearing his acceptance speech and about exhausting the battery of my father’s Impala. I told him he had set the ethical and intellectual standards by which I had attempted to live my own life. He mentioned, ruefully, the loss of 49 states.
“Senator,” I said. “You never betrayed that 15-year-old boy.”
Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years
This this article was first published at TruthDig
© 2012 Truthdig
R.I.P. George McGovern, 1922-2012: Antiwar Candidate Who Challenged Vietnam and Inspired a Generation
We play excerpts of "One Bright Shining Moment" about McGovern’s 1972 grassroots campaign for the presidency, featuring interviews with the candidate himself; supporters and activists like Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, Warren Beatty, Howard Zinn; and music from Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Donovan and Elvis Costello.
Two days before Sen. McGovern’s death on October 21, we aired Steve Vittoria’s award-winning documentary, "One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern," narrated by Amy Goodman.
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