McGovern, role model for my generation, passes away
He was the kind of man who stood up for what he believed in and was willing to take a drubbing for it.
George McGovern, former U.S. senator from North Dakota and the Democrat nominated to take on President Richard Nixon in the 1972 campaign, won only one state--Massachusetts--and the District of Columbia on election night. That's more than a drubbing. That's a voice in the wilderness being beaten by villagers with clubs and axes.
The generations of American liberals he represented continued to love him in spite of his defeat, memorializing his, and their, defiance with a now-famous bumper sticker: "Don't Blame Me, I'm From Massachusetts."
He argued early and often during the campaign that Nixon, one of the most popular presidents of the age, was full of bull when he declared that '"Peace was at hand."
"Peace is not at hand," McGovern told campaign rallies. "It is not even in sight."
Yet Nixon, having emerged through four years of societal fragmentation that saw the Tet Offensive, a victory for the U.S. but a public relations win for the North Vietnamese; exploding college campuses and city slums wracked by violent demonstrations, the surrounding of the Pentagon by thousands, the assassinations of Martin L. King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the collapse of confidence in other areas of American life, still rolled right over him in the voting booth.
"I wanted to run for president in the worst way," McGovern joked. "I guess I did."
There was so much to this man. Born in a small farming community in North Dakota in time to see the dust bowl and the depression, the thin young man signed up for the Army Air Force in 1941, when he was 19. He signed up to be a bomber pilot, not the sort of assignment that one sought if one wanted to survive the war.
"I survived at a time when half of the B-24 crews in that theater did not make it," the elderly McGovern told AirVenture Today magazine in 2007.
McGovern was such a man; what differentiates him from so many others is that we know his name.
McGovern was a B-24 bomber pilot, which made him commander of his crew, a group of seasoned 17 and 18 year olds. This adds to the amazement of what these guys went through.
McGovern, who called the B-24 ugly and a gas hog, named it after his young wife. The Dakota Queen flew mission after mission with McGovern at the wheel. Dozens of these aircraft would take off, loaded to the hilt with 500-pound bombs, so heavy they needed a half-mile of land to get airborne. They would join up in formation high above the free parts of Europe and head toward their targets. Sometimes it would be a ball-bearing factory, an oil refinery, train tracks, any facility that built weapons or supported Hitler's war machine. As they approached their targets, dozens of fighter planes with the German cross would dive on them from all angles, chopping up wings, crew, and pilots with heavy machine guns. The bombers were sitting ducks because under no circumstance could pilots pull out of formation. The tight grouping was the only way to ensure enough bombs would hit the target.
On many occasions, McGovern and his crew of kids would see blood splatter the inside of the adjacent bomber's cockpit, or watch as a bomber split in two, its crew cartwheeling into the props of other bombers. McGovern won the Distinguished Flying Cross after bringing his crew home, limping back to base with an engine or two out, or the hull of the aircraft looking like Swiss cheese.
Yet he railed against Nixon's bombing of civilians in Hanoi, Cambodia, and other parts of Vietnam. Was this hypocrisy? No, and I'll tell you why. A man who has bombed cities, albeit military targets, knows of which he speaks. For McGovern, civilians were off-limits but he knew they suffered when his bombs fell. In the era before smart bombs, hitting targets was far from assured.
While flying back to base one day, McGovern's plane had a bomb stuck in its rack. McGovern flew the plane lower so the men could free it without wearing oxygen masks. The bomb fell and landed square on a farmer's house in Austria.
"It blew the farmyard to smithereens," McGovern told AirVenture Today. "I felt terrible knowing that farmers eat lunch around noon and that we had probably blown up a family. That bothered me for a long time."
Years later, McGovern was serving as a professor at an Austrian university and while on television there, told the story of how he had unintentionally destroyed the farmhouse so many years earlier. Unbelievably, the farmer, still alive, saw McGovern on television and called the station.
"Tell him it was my farm," the man said. "We saw the bomber coming and knew it wasn't in formation. So I got my wife and three children, and we hid in a ditch and no one got hurt. Tell him if bombing my farm made this war one minute closer to ending, it was fine with us."
So McGovern spoke with authority when he criticized Nixon for the Christmas bombing that hit civilians in Vietnam. Though Nixon hoped the stepped-up bombing would bring North Vietnam back to the negotiating table, McGovern believed it was not winning hearts and minds in that part of the world or in the United States. Not to mention killing innocents.
McGovern also saw a difference between WWII and Vietnam. Though civilian deaths are ridiculously absurd during any war, the Allies believed punishing German civilians could speed the overthrow of Hitler. Besides, Hitler had bombed European cities, including London, not giving a hoot about civilians.
I love this man for another reason. He waged a losing battle to save his daughter Terry's life. In "Terry: My Daughter's Life-And-Death Struggle With Alcoholism," this very public man discussed his private hell watching his daughter descend into madness and alcoholism. She eventually died on a frigid night, frozen to death in a snowbank.
He and his wife, Eleanor, did a great thing discussing how their hearts moved from dismay, anger, and finally desperation and love for their child. In the end, the couple had to bury her. After his defeat in 1972, McGovern has moved heaven and earth to find ways to get food to starving regions and nations cut off by war and unreasonable leaders.
His name is synonymous with the movement to end world hunger. While some nations, like ours, dump thousands of tons of food into the trash every hour, other nations have children with bellies swollen with hunger-based illness and disease.
Want peace? Reduce hunger and want. Truly liberal ideas that should be embraced by all segments of the political spectrum.
I have spoken with Sen. McGovern on a couple of occasions. In the early 1980s, he lived in the top floor of an apartment building on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. I lived across the street. On a snowy night, I walked to the 7-11 up the street and ran into him as he bought a cup of coffee. I thanked him for trying to defeat Nixon and commented on the snow. He said, "You're welcome," adding, "I love the snow, how about you?"
"It hides all sins," I said, repeating something my mother always said.
"Not all of them," he said, then laughed.
When I read "Terry," his book about his daughter's battle and death so many years later, I understood what he meant.
As our political center continues to fling apart, the loss of men like McGovern (and Teddy Kennedy last year) remind us that we must double our efforts to combat the cynics on the right.
Election Day is Tuesday. Vote for moderation, progress, and equality. Vote Democrat.