Early Sunday morning, George McGovern — the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and former U.S. senator from South Dakota — died at age 90. On Wednesday, his family had announced that McGovern was "no longer responsive" and was near death after being admitted to hospice care in the wake of several health problems over the last year. The 90 year old liberal icon has was perhaps most famous for his impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as the drubbing he took at the hands of the odious Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. Nixon won 49 states, while McGovern won Massachusetts. By 1974, Nixon was besieged by his role in the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up, and resigned the presidency in disgrace. The unraveling of the scandal lead to the proliferation of a bumper sticker that read, "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts."
Word of McGovern's passing comes at a time when the Democratic Party desperately needs more McGoverns to help it find its soul and backbone. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many Democrats thought they had voted for an end to the war in Afghanistan, an end to unprovoked military interventions, an end to drone strikes, an end to the targeting of American citizens for assassination without due process, an end to the assault on our civil liberties by legislation such as the nefarious PATRIOT Act, and other abominations against the Constitution and the rule of law, both domestic and international. None of this has happened; in fact, in many cases the detestable practices begun by the Bush administration have been augmented by Obama.
In the summer of 1970, McGovern, along with Oregon senator Mark Hatfield, proposed legislation that would have required the United States to cease military operations in Vietnam, and called for a withdrawal of U.S. forces by midway through 1971. On September 1, 1970, McGovern gave one of the most ballsy speeches in the history of the U.S. Senate. He said in part,
"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval 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."
The legislation was defeated by a war-loving senate. In the end, McGovern was vindicated, as 58,000 Americans and some 2 million or more Southeast Asians were killed by the relentless U.S. carpet-bombings of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The U.S. failed in its objective to prevent South Vietnam from falling to the North.
Is it even worth asking which lawmaker in the senate is most likely to deliver a similar speech today about the war in Afghanistan? Hardly, since even most Democratic senators — supposedly the anti-war ones — cravenly support Obama's plan to keep American soldiers in that country until 2014 and perhaps beyond to 2024. For what? No one knows. No administration official — civilian or military has advanced anything close to a coherent answer. Ask a relative, friend, or coworker why the U.S. is still in Afghanistan. Or ask a veteran of the war itself. Nobody has the faintest idea. Occasionally we are vaguely told something along the lines of Afghanistan needing to be stabilized. That should make for a great condolence letter to the families of those soldiers who are currently alive, but will be killed in action because Afghanistan and its corrupt president need stabilizing, whatever that means.
McGovern himself was a veteran of World War II, and flew dozens of bombing missions over German-occupied Europe. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for making an emergency landing that saved his crew. After the war, he earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University and taught the subject as professor. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1956, and served two terms. In 1962, he was elected to the U.S. senate, and was the only ever chair of the now defunct U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which existed from 1968 to 1977. The committee was formed to address hunger and malnutrition in the U.S., and established dietary guidelines that the medical community had been advocating, such as eating limited amounts of fat and processed sugars. The guidelines were not well-received by the cattle and dairy industries in McGovern's home state of South Dakota. He served in the senate until 1981 after being ingloriously defeated by a historical footnote in the Reagan Revolution of 1980.
George McGovern is gone, but not forgotten — at least not by the few remaining Democrats who know what it means to stand for something.