George McGovern is dead. The lede and two subsequent grafs from the New York Times report today give us an inkling of what we’ll be hearing and seeing a lot until he’s laid to rest.
George McGovern, the United States senator who won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972 as an opponent of the war in Vietnam and a champion of liberal causes, and who was then trounced by President Richard M. Nixon in the general election, died early Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90….
To the liberal Democratic faithful, Mr. McGovern remained a standard-bearer well into his old age, writing and lecturing even as his name was routinely invoked by conservatives as synonymous with what they considered the failures of liberal politics.
He never retreated from those ideals, however, insisting on a strong, “progressive” federal government to protect the vulnerable and expand economic opportunity while asserting that history would prove him correct in his opposing not only what he called “the tragically mistaken American war in Vietnam” but also the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rarely mentioned is McGovern’s belated mea culpa over not having had a business background before assuming public office, inspired by his post-Senate experience of trying to open and operate an inn in Connecticut. As he explained in an Inc. magazine guest column, McGovern discovered that some of those liberal regulatory hurdles he’d voted as a senator to impose proved too high a jump, even for someone with his Rolodex.
The second lesson I learned by owning the Stratford Inn is that legislators and government regulators must more carefully consider the economic and management burdens we have been imposing on U.S. business. As an innkeeper, I wanted excellent safeguards against a fire. But I was startled to be told that our two-story structure, which had large sliding doors opening from every guest room to all-concrete decks, required us to meet fire regulations more appropriate to the Waldorf-Astoria.
By all accounts George McGovern was a fine man, and his life will be celebrated in countless words over the coming days. But those celebrations won’t be fueled by his character (nor by his bravery and skills as a World War II pilot). They’ll be fueled by what baby boomers remember so fondly as his opposition to “Nixon’s war” in Vietnam.
Here, for example, is a tweet from Dan Froomkin, the Huffington Post’s senior Washington correspondent: “I have much more love for someone who lost as the candidate for peace than for anyone who won as the candidate for war.”
Back in the Vietnam era, McGovern was most often compared to another failed antiwar presidential candidate (though he never received the nomination), Eugene McCarthy; and you can be pretty much assured that McGovern will be eulogized from the same template that McCarthy was nearly seven years ago.
At the time, I was so struck by Bill Clinton’s eulogy that I took to the pages of The Weekly Standard with a short column. And since I fully expect that Clinton will (a) show up as McGovern’s keynote eulogizer, and (b) pull out the same superlatives, I’m going to quote the piece in its entirety. Only the name will need changing.
A MEMORIAL SERVICE for former senator Eugene J. McCarthy was held last Saturday at the National Cathedral in Washington, and former president Bill Clinton was there to eulogize him. This was not surprising: President Clinton will probably be present to eulogize every other boomer icon, whenever photographers are permitted, for as long as his health permits. What was surprising, though, was that Clinton credited the senator, who died last month, for turning the country against the Vietnam War—the operative word being “credited.”
“It all started when Gene McCarthy was willing to stand alone and turn the tide of history,” said the forty-second president of the United States.
But “to stand alone and turn the tide of history” is the kind of language generally reserved for the likes of Churchill’s warnings about Hitler at a time when no one wanted to hear them. Or for Lincoln, risking everything to keep the United States united. Indeed, those could’ve been the words Clinton used for Rosa Parks, substituting “sit” for “stand” in his eulogy at her funeral. They’re used for people whose actions are considered unambiguously good.
As far as I know, there has never been a national referendum in which America as a nation decided that President Kennedy’s decision to send military “advisers” to South Vietnam as a bulwark against falling-dominoes communism was an error of historic proportions; that those who fought, and died, did so in vain; that the consequences of our leaving Vietnam without winning—millions slaughtered—were, at worst, morally neutral. That the war, in short, was unredeemable from first to last.
Those appear to have been Clinton’s conclusions. After all, he had come to praise the senator, not to bury him. So is this what Senator McCarthy deserves for helping to turn much of the country against the Vietnam War?
Well, I’m acquainted with several Vietnam vets who feel strongly that they served their country well in a noble cause. And I wrote a book with and about a man whose heroic service in Vietnam as a gunship pilot was the proudest time of his life—no matter that he was black in what was then a white man’s world.
I think it’s unlikely that these veterans believe Senator McCarthy’s public opposition to the war served anyone but the North Vietnamese—an opinion, in fact, shared by the North’s commander, General Nguyen Vo Giap. Seeing that his forces could not beat the United States militarily, Gen. Giap considered negotiating a truce until the antiwar protests reached critical mass—soon after Senator McCarthy came out publicly against the war. From then, Giap wrote, he realized that he could lose every battle and still win the war. All he had to do was endure.
In Vietnam, the “American War” may be settled history. But in this country the Vietnam War isn’t. Not now. Not soon. And when it is, the matter won’t be settled by men who, like Clinton and me, could have fought in that war but demonstrated against it instead—and therefore have a vested interest in seeing that turned tide as a flood averted. The truth may be that we started one.
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