What most people never grasped about George McGovern’s run for president forty years ago is that it was the last genuinely open and honest presidential campaign. His landslide defeat in 1972 taught a generation of aspiring young Democrats not to try that again—and they didn’t. McGovern’s quality of earnest candor was deeper than style or politics. This is who he was as a person, not a saint or righteous innocent but constitutionally inclined to say what he thought, believing most people would listen with an open mind or at least they would learn from a truthful discussion of the nation’s condition.

Of course, he was mistaken. Yet I saw him up close when again and again he spoke freely about his views in ways that injured him, set him up for ridicule or contempt. Even the reporters covering his doomed campaign would roll their eyes in disbelief. Me too. Reporters were the cynics and Senator McGovern was the starry-eyed idealist. That was more or less the way we told the story. Looking back after all these years, I feel we missed the essence of George McGovern’s goodness. He was not naïve or ignorant of the hostile context. Given the desperate state of the union, putting hard truths on the table was perhaps the only strategy that might prevail. Anyway, it would be good for the country.

I experienced this as a young reporter for The Washington Post covering the McGovern campaign non-stop. The editors knew I was something of a bleeding heart. But they figured McGovern was a sure loser (they were right) and so it would do no harm if I wrote a lot of sensitive mush (they were right about that too). So I spent the campaign season as one of the “boys on the bus”—two weeks on the road with the candidate, then one week or so back home in DC. We had a lot of fun. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was the tour director.

I was given only one instruction by my editor—do not fall for the reporter’s standard illusion that what was happening day by day on the campaign trail would somehow decide the election results. It didn’t then and it doesn’t now. Knowing this liberated me to skip the thumb-sucking stories on how the horse race was going. Other reporters, watching the big crowds of ecstatic McGovern supporters turn out, would succumb and report that the candidate was finally enjoying a “turnaround.” He might not be a loser after all! My accomplishment was I never fell for that.

But I did sort of fall in love. The candidate was intriguing on a personal level—sweet and brainy and deeply thoughtful, a true and generous teacher. He had a sophisticated world view born of the World War II experience and an open-armed confidence about America and its possibilities that I think of as Midwestern (since I’m Midwestern myself). McGovern’s conviction was liberal optimism and creative thinking could change things for the better. World peace was the core of his optimism. How far-fetched it seems now.

The senator’s character was reflected in his campaign apparatus and the people around him. A little wobbly on organizational skills but a great spirit of mutual good feeling. A favorite pleasure of mine when I was back in DC was dropping by the McGovern national headquarters housed in an old rowhouse on K Street. I literally would go door to door and chat up whoever I came across among the people managing his campaign—writing speeches, raising money, plotting schedules. There were no security guards at the building nor even a formal receptionist (though they did have a daycare center for their kids).

I remember dropping in on the campaign treasurer, who proudly took me up stairs to show me the money room. There were long folding tables covered with stacks of envelopes and high-spirited women ripping them open and counting thousands of dollar bills. I felt welcome to sit down and start opening envelopes myself. On another occasion, I was ushered into an office where staffers were listening to a possible campaign song. “George McGovern Will Lead Our Crusade.” It went on for many verses while the composer did a little tap dance. Campaign staffers listened earnestly but decided the song might to be too radical for the candidate. How could you not like these people?

Across town was the future of politics—the Nixon headquarters. There were armed guards, locked doors with buzzers, special IDs for important people and, who knows, probably hidden cameras. Everyone called it CREEP—The Committee to Re-elect the President. McGovern called it the most corrupt administration in history and was criticized for exaggeration. CREEP was secretly shaking down corporations for hundreds of millions and threatening retaliation to any company that refused. The extortion was so raw some CEOs complained publically. Forty years later, the corporate money is all perfectly legal now and extortion has morphed into the wholesale bribery that engulfs both parties (though some donors still prefer anonymity).

The senator’s death brings back a small personal regret. Reporters loved to interview McGovern, knowing if they pushed the right button they might get an alarmingly candid response. A month or so before the 1972 election, the Nixon White House cooked up what became known as the “October Surprise”—the sudden announcement of peace in Vietnam. About that time, a small group of reporters were invited to interview McGovern and I asked the candidate a loaded question: What did he think would happen after “peace” was declared?  

McGovern did not blink. In his patient manner, he taught a little history of Indochina and concluded that this “peace” was not the end of the story. In a couple of years, once American troops were withdrawn, North Vietnam’s army would sweep south, swiftly conquer the old US ally and unify the two Vietnams. The United States would make a lot of noise but decline to re-enter the war. That, of course, is precisely what happened three years later. McGovern’s prediction was ignored amid the celebration of Nixon’s false peace. I still feel a small regret that I had set up the senator, not because it made any difference but because I was taking advantage of his best quality.

The hardest question to ask about George McGovern’s legacy is whether he made any difference at all. In some aspects, we can say yes. But for the central thrust of what he believed and tirelessly advocated, we have to say, honestly, no. Like McGovern, I imagined with millions of others that Americans would learn from the tragedy of Vietnam and never let it happen again.

That was so wrong. We are replaying the tragedy instead, repeating the same brutal mistakes and, worse yet, pretending that the bloodshed is noble business. Since 1972, I count four American wars fought on foreign soil and many more smaller skirmishes, all in the name of national security. Each time, the American dead are honored in sentimental public celebrations. The speeches express gratitude to their families and admiration for acts of bravery. No one of any prominence in politics dares to ask whether they died in vain or if the killing of many thousands in target countries has any moral justification. Think of the questions George McGovern asked. To what end? How are we any safer as a nation? Is it possible we are inventing even more risks?

Instead, we hear more talk of war, more planning for war. We set tripwires for potential wars in scores of other countries. If they do something bad, we will go after them. The president can now make war in remote places by personally punching a few buttons, selecting individual victims from lists of potential enemies. A man of peace who frequently makes war.

George McGovern would tell the truth nobody wants to mention. Instead of finding peace, our society is drenched in the culture of war, taught to children in video games and glamorized in fiction and film. On some twisted level, we have been taught to love war and so we shall have more of it. Do not mourn for the senator. Mourn for ourselves.

George McGovern for The Nation:

Questions for Mr. Bush | April 4, 2002
The Reason Why | April 3, 2003
Patriotism Is Nonpartisan | March 24, 2005 Gene McCarthy | December 15, 2005
The Legacy of Four Women with Rep. Jim McGovern | December 21, 2005
An Impartial Interrogation of George W. Bush | January 17, 2007

The Nation Profile:

McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds by Arthur I. Blaustein and Peter T. Sussman | October 16, 1972