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October 26, 2012

George McGovern and Second Chances

By Tom Gallagher

The gap is described between George McGovern and what has followed.


Life doesn't offer many second chances. So I've always been tremendously grateful for the one George McGovern gave me. On February 29, 1984, I found myself the Massachusetts co-chair of a presidential campaign that no longer existed, its candidate, California Senator Alan Cranston, having just dropped out following a poor New Hampshire primary showing. By the time I arrived at the State House that day, there were two messages on my desk -- one to call the Walter Mondale headquarters; the other from Gary Hart's people. But instead of calling the frontrunners, I crumpled the notes and called Information for the number of the McGovern campaign to offer them my support.

Then a second-term member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, I had decided I ought to do this presidential campaign full on, because, for all I knew, it might be the only one during which I would be holding public office (and it was).  One had to pick early because candidates to deny Ronald Reagan a second term had already lined up by 1983, when I had sized Cranston up as the best option. When McGovern later entered the race, I felt compelled to ignore him because I was already committed. But that had changed and I now became the only legislator supporting McGovern in the only state he had carried against Richard Nixon as the 1972 Democratic nominee.

But while McGovern may have driven Cranston from the race with a surprising Iowa Caucus showing, he had still gotten only 5 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote. He decided to lay all his chips on Massachusetts and announced his intention to spend the entire next two weeks in the state, even though there were four other primaries happening on the same day. If he didn't finish first or at least a close second in Massachusetts, he was out. All of this made for some of the favorite political memories of my life, as I introduced McGovern at events all around Boston for the next fortnight, most memorably at his Faneuil Hall rally.

Most people, of course, don't even remember or realize that McGovern was a presidential candidate in 1984. He withdrew from the race after finishing third in the Massachusetts primary, before much of the country had started to pay attention to the race. Too few people had opted to take the second chance he'd given them.

Maybe we can forgive Massachusetts voters for 1984 because, after all, they did get it right in 1972, when the problem was every other state. Most voters had actually once wished for that second chance, it seemed. Post-Watergate polls showed Americans believing the country would have been better off had it voted the other way -- with one poll even showing most voters claiming they had actually done so! (Has anyone else ever lost an election so badly yet fared so much better than the victor in historical memory as McGovern has?)

Some may have considered McGovern's 1984 run quixotic and polls re-running the 1972 election are pretty much whimsy. And yet there is a real tragedy in the second chance that America never got, or took -- depending on how you want to look at it -- in regard to McGovern's 1972 campaign. It was pretty much to be expected that his 1984 effort would be given short shrift -- presidential runners-up just don't get a second chance any more. The last one who did was 1960 loser Nixon -- and look how that turned out! The Democrats have not nominated a previous loser since Adlai Stevenson in 1956. But real political tragedy is never about just one person. It has to do with losses suffered by millions. Here the greater loss was the degree to which the ideas McGovern championed vanished from mainstream politics.

To say that McGovern, not Nixon, was right on the Vietnam War is not terribly controversial today. But unlike many subsequent "antiwar" candidates, McGovern did not argue that the war was a terribly mistake that we would have to work our way out of in a year or three. Recognizing that real people would die while politicians tried to come up with some more "politically acceptable" solution, he called for immediate withdrawal. And the McGovern challenge went far deeper, proposing a 37 percent military-spending cut over three years. His acceptance speech called for national health insurance and a full employment program, with the government as employer of last resort. In short, he ran a campaign that proposed solutions of a magnitude equal to the problems facing the country. It didn't nibble at the edges.

To understand the depth of what this country lost when it turned away from McGovern, just listen to his 1972 acceptance speech and compare it with what you hear in this year's presidential debates. Forty years later, we'll still trying to figure out how to give America that second chance at what McGovern offered.

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Authors Bio:

Tom Gallagher was a Bernie Sanders delegate elected from California's 12th Congressional District. He is the author of "The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex."