In the literature and music of our children we are told, to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. And for America, the time has come at last. This is the time for truth, not falsehood. In a Democratic nation, no one likes to say that his inspiration came from secret arrangements by closed doors, but in the sense that is how my candidacy began. I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors. I want those doors opened and I want that war closed. And I make these pledges above all others: the doors of government will be opened, and that war will be closed. Truth is a habit of integrity, not a strategy of politics, and if we nurture the habit of truth in this campaign, we will continue to be truthful once we are in the White House. Let us say to Americans, as Woodrow Wilson said in his first campaign of 1912, “Let me inside the government and I will tell you what is going on there.”
-- George McGovern, accepting the Democratic nomination for president, July 14, 1972, 2 a.m.
The time for ex-Sen. George McGovern came earlier today: He died at the age of 90, after a lifetime of speaking out for the things he believed in. He was too-quietly idolized by many on the left, and held up by many on the right as a subject of ridicule, loser in 1972 of one of the worst landslides in modern presidential elections, a candidate whose decency didn't matter to critics who called him a candidate of "acid, amnesty and abortion."
The real George McGovern was nothing like the cartoon character of his conservative critics. Although McGovern wasn't the only man to seek the Oval Office with an exemplary military career, his record of war bravery was remarkable. In World War II, he flew dozens of missions over Austria, Germany and Italy and won the Distinguished Flying Cross after his plane was shot down over Czechoslovakia. His experiences in war inspired him to become a man of peace -- just as his experience growing up among dirt-poor farmers in the Great Depression inspired him to fight poverty and hunger.
It's hard to believe that 40 years ago, there was a candidate for president who supported a guaranteed national income for all Americans, national health care and legislation for clean air and clear water, but what's even more remarkable was that he was McGovern's opponent, the "conservative" incumbent Republican Richard Nixon. Which goes to show just how far to the extreme right the playing field has tilted. To be sure, McGovern supported all those things too, and, yes, his platform was certainly the most progressive of any major presidential candidate in my lifetime. He was also remarkably naive during his 1972 campaign of the extent that social unrest and programs ike school busing for racial integration were driving blue-collar whites out of the Democratic Party.
But if you think of George McGovern, I challenge you to re-read his remarkable acceptance speech from 1972, delivered ih the dead of night under trying circumstances. This is the plain prairie talk of a modest but committed American patriot, a man who knew that the only way this country could ever fulfill its dream of higher greatness was to be honest about its mistakes and its flaws.
You can see by reading by his brutally candid words or watching the first few minutes of the speech in the video below -- self-deprecating and flat-out funny -- that McGovern pre-dated the era of the high-priced political media consultant. They would have told him to play up his World War II heroism (actually, he probably should have) and stop going on and on about this Vietnam thing. If he done that, maybe he only would have lost to Nixon (and his bag of dirty tricks) by 55-45. But we would not recall McGovern as fondly, either -- for in the South Dakotan's death we see the things that are so lacking in our politics today. The same is true about his life after he left politics in 1980, a victim of the Reagan landslide: He could have made millions as a D.C. lobbyist, but he went back to the prairie, where he taught college kids, wrote a few books, and remained an unvarnished critic of unwarranted American militarism.
So with McGovern in mind, let's be as honest as possible: The 2012 campaign is a disgrace to his legacy and to all the things he believed in. McGovern's era was a time when fighting poverty was seen as an American crisis, an essential mission not just of "the government" but of a society that aspired to world leadership. It's shockng that in just four decades we've gone from that fundamental sense of decency and fairness to see the poor as a greedy entitled class with its hand out --to the extent that we talk about poverty at all.
But frankly, neither candidate in 2012 meets the McGovern standard for candor when it comes to Afghanistan -- both President Obama and Mitt Romney would rather run out the clock than explain why we're still there after 11 years. In 1972, McGovern called for a fair tax code that didn't reward millionaires, and yet that situation has gotten progressively (no pun intended) worse.
Forty years ago this summer, George McGovern urged 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." It is for that refrain that his speech is still remembered: "Come home, America."
It is sad that George McGovern died today, even after living such a full life and giving back so much. But the sense of tragedy is that it may be a long time before America sees another like him, at that level of national politics. Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right: You can't go home again.