From our partners at The Agonist
The news of George McGovern’s death at the age of 90 has unleashed a torrent of sanctimonious, ahistorical blather from the usual wingnuts. Now that he’s safely dead, he “was one of the most gentle, decent persons you’d ever encounter in American politics.” McGovern was the “good” kind of liberal, “the last of a breed, a stalwart of modern American liberalism, of the non-communist variety.”
We are mournfully told that McGovern was a relic from the past in a party that “was becoming a New Left organization grounded in radical theories of anti-Americanism and coercivie [sic] economic distribution.” Steven Hayward informs us that “McGovern’s name will always be associated, rightly, with the extreme leftward lurch of the Democratic Party.”
The truth, of course, is the exact opposite. Republicans destroyed McGovern’s campaign by relentless red-baiting and portraying McGovern as a radical leftist — and they did that with the help and cooperation of Democrats. Ever since then, Democrats have been running from the “liberal” tag as fast as they can. Donald Douglas is correct when he says that George McGovern was a war hero “who flew B-24 bombing raids over Germany in World War II.” But that heroic war record didn’t prevent Richard Nixon and his supporters from running a slime campaign — again, with the active assistance of the Democratic Party — that “managed to turn a decorated World War II combat veteran, a devout Christian and a son of the Depression-era Plains heartland into the elite, effete counterculture candidate of ‘amnesty, abortion and acid.’”
That quote comes from Joan Walsh’s excellent article on the history of the 1972 election and how it affected Democrats for decades after. Here’s more:
McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, would pioneer the idea of “New Democrats” who owed no allegiance to labor. When he ran for Senate in 1974, Hart titled his stump speech “The End of the New Deal.” That same year he proclaimed that his new generation of Democrats were not just ”a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” slandering labor’s longtime champion. A young Bill and Hillary Clinton got their start on the McGovern campaign, and it’s hard not to see the impact of McGovern’s defeat on Clinton’s careful centrism and Democratic Leadership Council politics. The DLC was formed in direct reaction to Walter Mondale’s 1984 loss, which was even more lop-sided than McGovern’s. But it was designed to eradicate McGovernism from the party – to define Democrats as tough on crime and welfare, friendly to business, hawkish on defense – everything McGovern supposedly was not. It also involved the party running away from its proud New Deal legacy, and defining itself more as what it wasn’t than what it was.
I can’t end this post without quoting this revealing passage from Steven Hayward’s piece (emphasis is mine):
He said some truly stupid things over the years, such as his carelessly chosen words in a Playboy interview implying that Ho Chi Minh could rightly be compared to George Washington, or his blaming the Cold War chiefly on the United States and the West, writing in his autobiography that “Without excusing the aggressive behavior of the Soviets in Eastern Europe after 1945, I have always believed that we not only overreacted to it but indeed helped to trigger it by our own post-World War II fears.” He added that “The challenge to the free world from Communism is no longer relevant,” and “I don’t like Communism, but I don’t think we have any great obligation to save the world from it.” While Nixon and other Republicans wore American flag lapel pins, the McGovernites found appeals to patriotism repellent, and wore the flag—if at all—upside down. Theodore White observed that “At McGovern headquarters, the word itself, ‘patriotism,’ was a code word for intolerance, war, deception. . . and phrases like ‘peace with honor’ actually did make them gag.”
Ho Chi Minh’s admiration for the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution; and his numerous attempts to get the United States to support the Viet Minh in their attempt to liberate Vietnam from French colonialism — all of which were not simply rebuffed but completely ignored — are a matter of historical record. The idea that the United States massively overstated Soviet military power — e.g., the infamous “missile gap” — and that a small group of highly ideological Cold Warriors in the State Department and the intelligence community like John Foster Dulles, Edward Lansdale, Paul Nitze, Dean Rusk, and Henry Kissinger, among others, massively overreacted to the Soviet Communist threat out of all proportion to the actual danger to U.S. national security — is widely accepted among credible historians, and has been for years. Hayward may disagree on the merits, but the proposition itself is not exactly controversial anymore, at least among those who have looked at the vast trove of declassified Cold War documents and allowed themselves to be exposed to reputable sources outside the right-wing echo chamber. Hayward could start with Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, published in 1988 and still one of the definitive histories of the early period of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, from the latter years of French rule through the early 1960s.
Don’t worry, I’m not holding my breath.