When the presidential candidates debate foreign policy tonight, it’s hard to imagine that Barack Obama will mark the death of George McGovern. Which is too bad, because McGovern’s final words, in his final book, would buttress Obama’s criticisms of Mitt Romney’s hawkish macho talk.
Invoking McGovern, who passed early yesterday at age 90, would be politically nuts. The 1972 Democratic nominee’s name has long been a Republican punchline; in the cartoon lexicon of the last 40 years, a “McGovernite” is a wimpy peacenik who would disarm America and allow the enemy (communists then, terrorists now) to set up shop on Main Street. The label has also become synonymous with “loser,” since McGovern is forever known as the guy who lost 49 states (including home state South Dakota) to incumbent Richard Nixon. And even though candidate McGovern was soon vindicated – Watergate, the issue he’d publicized in vain on the campaign trail, ultimately decimated the Nixon White House – his place was secured in the history books. Just four weeks ago, he referred to the ’72 landslide as a “significant personal setback.
He was also – let’s face it – a lousy presidential candidate. At one point that year, he proposed giving impoverished Americans a “guaranteed income” of $1000 a year, and when his idea was inevitably attacked, he failed to explain how it would work or how it would be paid for. Worse yet, he failed to vet his running mate, Tom Eagleton; when the news broke that Eagleton had received shock treatment for mental depression, McGovern said he supported his man “1000 percent” – only to throw Eagleton under the bus shortly thereafter. His credibility was damaged, which was why few listened to his warnings about the seriousness of the nascent Watergate scandal. On election eve, mild-mannered McGovern exploded in the presence of a reporter: “I’m running against Richard Nixon and people think I’m the dishonest one?”
But enough about ’72. McGovern spent four subsequent decades in pursuit of noble aims – most notably, working with international groups, and with ex-Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, to reduce hunger and improve literacy in poor communities. And he hewed to his foreign policy principles – one of which is particularly relevent today, given the fact that Romney’s foreign policy team is packed with neoconservative Bush retreads who have still not processed the core lesson of Vietnam and Iraq.
McGovern – who opposed the Vietnam war in 1963, two years before the U.S. fully committed its military – instinctively understood that American bluster was often counterproductive and that misapplied American muscle generally made matters worse. And he wasn’t a pacificist, either. He was a World War II vet who had experienced the dark side of humanity, and believed as a result that lives should never be expended in faux crusades. Like the one that George W. Bush launched in Iraq.
His final book, published last November, should be required reading for the Romney neoconservatives who talk tough about Iran and Syria and Afghanistan despite never having served a day in the military:
“I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying on 35 bombing raids over Europe during the Second World War. I didn’t wait to be drafted. I enlisted in the Army Air Forces a few weeks after Pearl Harbor….I have noticed that a lot of people who beat their chests have never been near a military plane or a battlefield; they’ve never heard a bullet an inch above their skulls. They’ve never seen a buddy in arms gasping his way to death.
“Sometime in the late 1960s, as I had the (Senate) floor to make the case for our continuance in Vietnam, a fellow senator stood up and said, ‘I stand with our troops. As long as I hold this seat, I stand with our troops.” I said, ‘You’re not standing with our troops. They’re in Vietnam. You’re in the Senate, with air-conditioning, mahogany paneling, and pages to run your errands for you. Neither of us is standing with our troops.’…
“I think anytime Americans are involved in military operations, we ought to have a draft…If the children of our country’s leaders were serving in the military – if upper-class kids were being drafted out of Harvard and Smith – we might never enter unwise wars like those we’re in now, or were in for so many years in Vietnam.”
(A brief digression: As I mentioned on Friday, I’m currently in London. One of my friends here is an American businessman who just opened an office…in Ho Chi Minh City. That says it all. We go to war in Vietnam, kill millions of Vietnamese, and lose 60,000 of our own guys, in order to “stop international communism.” And 40 years later, we and the communists are doing business together.)
So the next time Romney beats his chest – presumably, tonight – we’d do well to remember McGovern’s words about “unwise wars.” And when Romney proposes yet again to ratchet up the defense budget, beyond what even the Pentagon wants, we might wish to heed what McGovern said in his final book: “There is more than one definition of ‘tough.’ We need to end the false choice between a bloated budget and a weak spine.”
McGovern closed the book with these words: “I will go to my grave believing that ours is the greatest country on earth.” Yet he was right to point out that, in the realms of war and statecraft, we have yet to fulfill that greatness.
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