Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging/Film Review--One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern

Who is George McGovern? Even for this historian, that is not an easy question to answer. He's just not someone who people think about very much. It's kind of sad actually. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee, is a good, decent man who stood up for his principles, particularly opposing the Vietnam War, and managed to capture the Democratic Party in 1972 from Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey. He then got crushed by Richard Nixon in the general election.

George McGovern is known as the ultimate loser. And he did lose 49 states to Nixon. But it's hard to blame McGovern too much for this. I don't know if he could have defeated Nixon. But he was undermined in so many ways but the power brokers of the Democratic Party that he never had a shot. His campaign is an excellent window to study the transformation of the Democratic Party from the nation's dominant party to one of semi-permanent minority.

As I'm sure most readers know the 1968 Democratic National Convention was a disaster. Johnson's Vietnam policy had infuriated millions of Americans while the power brokers of the Democratic Party still supported it. Johnson's announcement that he wouldn't run for reelection threw the party into disarray and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy only made that chaos worse. Hubert Humphrey of course became the nominee, but what is less known is that the guy didn't even win one state in the primaries. He was the choice of the party establishment that didn't care that much of the party had rejected the war and all it stood for. Chicago mayor Richard Daley saw the protestors as a personal affront and sicked his police on them, leading to incredible brutality displayed to the nation on television. This led Abraham Ribicoff to give his classic speech attacking Daley on the floor of the convention to which Daley loudly called him in front of the cameras, "You fucking Jew son of a bitch." I knew this story but had never actually seen the footage before. I have never seen such contempt in the eyes of someone as Ribicoff clearly had toward Daley. I have a lot of respect for Ribicoff anyway, but that took a lot of guts. Great stuff.

Anyway, Humphrey lost to Nixon by a small margin. The war continues and most congressional Democrats are happy to go along with it. But not George McGovern. He had come out against the war as early as 1963 and continued his criticism throughout, alienating Lyndon Johnson and much of the party leadership. He and Oregon Republican Senator Mark Hatfield eventually got a bill to the floor that would have cut off funding for the war. It failed but it did show significant progress as over 30 senators voted for it. By 1972, the Democratic leadership were going to make damn sure that a repeat of 1968 did not happen. They wanted a mainstream candidate with no problems. That person became Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. But McGovern announced and out of nowhere came in second in Iowa and New Hampshire and then won Wisconsin, forcing Muskie out of the race. The Democratic leadership panicked and Hubert Humphrey threw his name in again. He ran a no holds barred campaign, basically accusing McGovern of being a communist. This failed to achieve the nomination for Humphrey--McGovern won after a bruising fight. But it again tore the party apart. Humphrey, Daley, and the rest of the power brokers in the party loathed McGovern and figured that Nixon was better. The worst of these men was probably AFL-CIO head George Meany who attacked McGovern openly despite the fact that McGovern had one of the strongest pro-labor records in the Senate. But Meany was old, out of touch, and obsessed with stopping communism. He wanted to fight the Viet Cong to the bitter end. So when McGovern won the nomination, Meany made a big show of not giving him labor's support. This basically killed any shot McGovern had of winning.

The other reason McGovern couldn't put together a good campaign is that his grassroots team didn't really know what they were doing and the party mainstream had no interest in helping them. Without the support of party stalwarts like Humphrey, Meany, and Daley, the McGovernites just didn't have the experience to make it work. Picking Thomas Eagleton was a disaster. Eagleton wasn't forthcoming to McGovern about his mental issues. Of course the Republicans knew about them. Eagleton had to be dropped from the campaign and it was done in the most awkward manner possible. McGovern replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver but the damage was done. Between Nixon's dirty tricks, the Democratic Party's infighting, and the incompetence of the McGovern campaign, the landslide was on.

It's too bad for so many reasons. McGovern was right about Vietnam but Americans weren't ready to hear that message. McGovern was the right man to lead the country after the mental instability of Johnson and Nixon, but the American people preferred the dirty tricks to a straight-speaking man. McGovern actually represented underrepresented Americans--the poor and people of color had a man who really cared about them. But of course that did McGovern no favors among the electorate, where the South is overrepresented in the electoral college, as are the wealthy and white. A McGovern victory would have meant that the nation would have avoided the stench and embarassment of the second Nixon term--instead Watergate would have been investigated by the Democratic Party with Nixon already gone.

As for the film itself, it's well made with a couple of quibbles. Making this while McGovern is still alive was important. It's quite interesting to hear him talk about his own history. He's such an intelligent man that he has a lot of good stuff to say. Most of the other interviews are also useful. Gary Hart was his campaign manager, which I did not know, and is quite insightful. Dick Gregory, Gloria Steinem, and several lesser known activists of the time also contribute a good deal. The film is too long by about 30 minutes (it runs at slightly over 2 hours I believe). A general edit would have been nice. The narration by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman does not help matters. As a voice she is fine, but her narration is marked by the same problem that plagues her show. She begins the movie with a screed about how bad modern politicians are, particularly Republicans. While I don't necessarily disagree with this, she instantly would alienate any Republican who might watch the film, if there are any. Why not just let the film speak for itself? It just doesn't do anything for the issues the film addresses. Finally, the inclusion of Gore Vidal as a talking head drove me nuts. Has there ever been a more pompous, self-serving, ass in American history? Just hearing him speak drives me to violence.

Despite these few flaws, the film is definitely worth seeing for anyone with an interest in American history and the past and present of Democratic politics.

Can George McGovern be our nominee in 2008? There's no way that Hillary Clinton/Mark Warner/Bill Richardson, etc. can even hold a candle to him.