George McGovern Reconsidered
by Tim Kelly, October 31, 2012
But McGovern was no radical leftist. His politics were more reflective of the progressive populism of the American Midwest than of the radicalism of Columbia or Berkeley. Sure, more raucous elements had gotten a foothold within the Democratic Party, but they were rallying behind a man they thought was right on the critical issue of the day: America’s ruinous war in Vietnam. McGovern himself was rather conservative in his lifestyle, demeanor, and overall outlook. He was in many ways the embodiment of the conservative ideal. As Bill Kauffman wrote in the American Conservative (TAC):
In the home stretch of the ’72 campaign, McGovern was groping toward truths that exist far beyond the cattle pens of Left and Right. “Government has become so vast and impersonal that its interests diverge more and more from the interests of ordinary citizens,” he said two days before the election. “For a generation and more, the government has sought to meet our needs by multiplying its bureaucracy. Washington has taken too much in taxes from Main Street, and Main Street has received too little in return. It is not necessary to centralize power in order to solve our problems.” Charging that Nixon “uncritically clings to bloated bureaucracies, both civilian and military,” McGovern promised to “decentralize our system.”McGovern had this to say about war and the state:
All my life, I have heard Republicans and conservative Democrats complaining about the growth of centralized power in the federal executive. Vietnam and Cambodia have convinced me that the conservatives were right. Do they really believe their own rhetoric? We have permitted the war power which the authors of the Constitution wisely gave to us as the people’s representatives to slip out of our hands until it now resides behind closed doors at the State Department, the CIA, the Pentagon and the basement of the White House.
Bill Kauffman made this very point in his TAC profile of McGovern:
McGovernism combined New Left participatory democracy with the small-town populism of the Upper Midwest. In a couple of April 1972 speeches, he seemed to second Barry Goldwater’s 1968 remark to aide Karl Hess that “When the histories are written, I’ll bet that the Old Right and the New Left are put down as having a lot in common and that the people in the middle will be the enemy.”
“[M]ost Americans see the establishment center as an empty, decaying void that commands neither their confidence nor their love,” McGovern asserted in one of the great unknown campaign speeches in American history. “It is the establishment center that has led us into the stupidest and cruelest war in all history. That war is a moral and political disaster — a terrible cancer eating away the soul of the nation.… It was not the American worker who designed the Vietnam war or our military machine. It was the establishment wise men, the academicians of the center. As Walter Lippmann once observed, ‘There is nothing worse than a belligerent professor.’”...
There was a joke in the 1960s that went something like this: “In ’64, I was told that if I voted for Goldwater, we’d be at war in Vietnam. And they were right; I voted for Goldwater, and we went to war in Vietnam.” Well, a similar joke could have been made regarding the ’72 election: “In ’72, I was told that if I voted for McGovern, we’d retreat from Vietnam, the welfare state would expand, and the economy would tank. And they were right; I voted for McGovern, and we retreated from Vietnam, the welfare state expanded, and the economy tanked.”