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General News    H4'ed 10/23/12

I Knew Sen. George McGovern

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When Sen. George McGovern died on October 21, 2012, the United States lost the last true progressive nominee it has had for the Presidency since he ran in 1972. Senator McGovern first came to my attention during the Democratic Party primaries in 1996. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968, with the encouragement of the Kennedy family, which hoped to be able to head off the nomination of Hubert Humphrey, Sen. McGovern entered the primaries. But it was too little too late, and we all know what happened that year when Humphrey didn't have the guts to oppose President Johnson on the Viet Nam War and was beaten in a very close election by Richard Nixon and his "secret plan" to end the war. (The "secret" was of course to have conspired with the South Viet Nam political leadership to make sure that the then peace-talks going on in Paris would fail and Nixon would continue the war for another six years.)   After that defeat, Sen. McGovern almost immediately began organizing a run for the Presidency in 1972. (So you thought that the "permanent campaign" was something new, huh?)

Of course Sen. McGovern did win the 1972 nomination with the support of folks whose politics ranged from mine to those of two youngsters from Arkansas, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. As pointed out in The New York Times obituary (1), "The Republicans portrayed Mr. McGovern as a cowardly left-winger, a threat to the military and the free-market economy and someone outside the mainstream of American thought." His staff, the obituary went on, "urged him to talk more about his war experience, but like many World War II veterans at the time, he was reluctant to do so." That was most unfortunate. Nixon was in the Navy in World War II.   He spent his time in a series of desk jobs in places ranging from Ottumwa, IA (!), to Guadalcanal well after it had finally been captured by the Marines in February, 1943, to Washington, DC, and New York City. Sen. McGovern was a US Air Force pilot for the "other" heavy bomber of the US Air Force, less well-known than the B-17, but equally destructive, the B-24.

What Sen. McGovern wouldn't talk was the factors that while Nixon was sitting at a series of desks, McGovern was piloting a plane that was known colloquially in the Air Force as the "flying coffin."   This was because, unlike the B-17, were their aircraft to be hit by flak or an attacking German fighter's bullets or cannon shells, the B-24 was very difficult to escape from and then parachute to Earth (2).   And so, when Sen. McGovern's plane was hit on one of its raids he managed to pilot it safely to a crash-landing on an island in the Adriatic Sea. And oh yes, he also could have noted that if air crewmen survived 25 missions, they were rotated back to the States (and never sent out again, unlike our troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan). But this "cowardly left-winger," as he was labelled by the likes of "I-had-something-better-to-do-and-got-five-Viet-Nam-War-deferments" Dick Cheney, happened to have volunteered for an additional 10 missions in the "flying coffin."

Senator McGovern courageously tried to remake the Democratic Party into one that represented the interests of the working class, as it had to some extent under the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In fact it is a sad fact that Lyndon Johnson, who McGovern opposed so bitterly on 1968, would have gone down in US history as one of our greatest Presidents, for the same reasons, had it not been for his having been dragged into the Big Muddy of Viet Nam by his visceral fear of being labelled a "red" by the Republicans, as was McGovern. Johnson had embraced both Medicare and the Civil Rights movement and was a strong proponent of government intervention to solve problems that the private sector could not or didn't want to solve (as, ironically enough, so was Richard Nixon, on the domestic front). But in 1972 McGovern was trying to return the Democratic Party to both its New Deal roots and the abandoned "Great Society" of Lyndon Johnson.

He made one huge political mistake. That is that he confused interest group politics, which he consciously organized from 1969 through 1972 in order to get the nomination, with coalition politics. In the former, it's every group wants to hear and feel its own voice. In the latter, all the groups get together behind a common purpose and a common leader. And so, on the night of Sen. McGovern's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, every single interest group that lined up behind the Senator and demanded its time in the lime light at the speaker's rostrum was given it, and some went on-and-on-and-on. There was no discipline, either from the speakers themselves or from the Senator and his staff. I know, because I was one of those who waited up until 2 AM Eastern time to hear the Senator's speech. Not at all the way to start an uphill national campaign, uphill especially when Nixon had already adopted "The Southern Strategy" to harness racism to his side.

The Senator's later famous conclusion was heard by few at the time. But it is worth repeating here (3): "From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America. From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, 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. Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for "this is your land, this land is my land--from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters--this land was made for you and me.' So let us close on this note: May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home. And now is the time to meet that challenge. Good night, and Godspeed to you all." (Yes, the Senator was the son of a Protestant Minister.) Still sounds good, doesn't it?

Sen. McGovern was trounced by Pres. Nixon, but he wasn't helped by the leadership of his own party. I will never forget the TV camera pan of the Democratic bigwigs' row in the balcony (yes, in the balcony, not anywhere near the Senator), with Senator Humphrey, the Senator from Boeing, Washington State's Henry "Scoop" Jackson, and other non-New Dealers. They were all standing there, scowls on their faces, arms folded. Not one clap for anything the Senator said from any of them. And so began the long descent of the Democratic Party into its domination by the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council which, in its formative stage, gave us Jimmy Carter who gave us Ronald Reagan, then Bill "the days of big government are over" Clinton, who gave us George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, who seems to be on the way to giving us Mitt Romney.  

In recent years Sen. McGovern has distinguished himself by being the one national political figure to strongly support the Southern Poverty Law Center (, the organization that tracks the ever-increasing number of violent right-wing hate groups so well that its leadership finds itself increasingly assaulted by death threats coming from them. Personal bravery on the part of the Senator again.

I first met the Senator personally when I was invited to join a group being organized by him after the loss of his Senate seat in 1980 to come up with a plan for a comprehensive national health insurance program. (I used to do health policy analysis. In fact, back in the 1970s I organized and produced the first textbook ever on the US health care delivery system [now, 4].) In person, he was as advertised, a warm, friendly, very intelligent man, who gave respect to others while commanding it for himself. Although nothing came of that project during the Reagan years, we stayed in touch off and on through the 1980s. (Funnily enough, had it not been for Watergate, we would have had comprehensive national health insurance from the mid-1970s. Nixon had introduced such a plan to Congress in the spring of 1974. In fact, none other the Sen. Bob Dole made the speech on the floor that introduced a plan much more comprehensive than anything either Pres. Obama or Gov. Romney had ever proposed or achieved.)

In the early 1990s I was writing my first political book, The New Americanism: How the Democratic Party can win the Presidency (6). With some trepidation, I asked the Senator if he would write the Foreword for my book. I went to meet him at his offices just off DuPont Circle in Washington. We discussed the book, he said he would read the manuscript, and he eventually delivered to me the type of Foreword an author always wants to receive. Let me conclude this tribute to the Senator with a few quotes from the Foreword. They still point the way ahead for our nation and for what I hope will be a reborn Progressive Party, Democratic or not, whatever happens in the upcoming election.

"This book fascinates me because it rests on the interesting and, I believe, truthful proposition that our oldest and most enduring national values offer the best guidelines for resolving our most serious problems. . . . . I believe that both of America's oldest political traditions --- [true] conservatism and liberalism --- are rooted in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was originally, and remains, a compromise of conservatism and liberal concerns. Dr. Jonas concentrates on the liberal stream which he sees as the primary thrust of our founding documents. Two decades ago I attempted a similar theme in the battle cry of my presidential campaign, "Come Horne America.' My thesis was that America had wandered away from its Constitutional, moral, and philosophical ideals --- most painfully in the tragically mistaken Vietnam War and the related Watergate syndrome.

"Frequently in our history the claims of constitutionalism, liberalism, and even conservatism, have been over-ridden by more compelling passions and impulses. Fear and hostility towards foreigners, witch-hunting against other Americans not in the "mainstream,' religious and political bigotry, racism, corporate and personal greed, nationalism, jingoism, militarism --- all of these have at times transcended the guidelines of constitutional democracy. In our own day, since World War II, the passions of anti-communism and the claims of "the National Security State' have shaped both American foreign policy and our national priorities more than either the humane ideals of liberalism or the caution and prudence of conservatism. Looking back on the four decades of bipartisan Cold War policy and interventionism under Democrats and Republicans alike, one sees repeated violations of Constitutional limits and of our once proclaimed "decent respect for the opinions of mankind.' . . .

"Dr. Jonas argues persuasively that what is missing from contemporary American politics --- more specifically what the Democratic Party lacks --- is not a list of proposed public programs. Rather, the fundamental need is for a coherent, unifying philosophy grounded in the nation's founding documents [that is the Constitution, read in full, not in excerpts as the Republicans do, and the Declaration of Independence]. As a blunt spoken, Democratic partisan, the author believes that today's Republican leadership [and now of many Democrats too I might add] is devoted to preserving the status quo in a manner that best advances the interests of the rich and the most favored [sound familiar?] . . . "The New Americanism' offers a new commitment to [in the words of the almost always ignored (7)] the Preamble to the Constitution: "Establish Justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.' "

And then the Senator had some very nice things to say about me and my writing. But this column is not about me, but about Senator George McGovern, whom I was so privileged to know just a bit, one of the bravest and best we have ever had. And so I will leave it there.



1. Rosenbaum, David E., "George McGovern, 1922-2012: A Prairie Liberal, Trounced but Never Silenced," New York Times, October 21, 2012,

2. Personal communication, from my friend Bill Lyons, who himself flew 68 combat bomber escort missions over Germany in the first US fighter that could accompany our bombers all the way from their bases in England and Italy to their targets and back, the P-51 Mustang. This is the plane that was also flown by the famous "Tuskegee Airmen."

3. Hedges, C., "McGovern: He Never Sold His Soul," .

4. Kovner, A.R. and Knickman, J.R., Jonas and Kovner's Health Care Delivery in the United States, 10th ed., New York: Springer Publishing Co., 2011.

5. History of health care reform in the United States - ... , States.

6. Jonas, S., The New Americanism: How the Democratic Party can win the Presidency, Port Jefferson, NY: Thomas Jefferson Press, 1992.

7. Jonas, S., "The Preamblers," BuzzFlash, March 10, 2010, 's-bf-commentary-no-135-the-preamblers

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a ├ éČ┼"Trusted Author,├ éČ Ł he is a Senior (more...)
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