George McGovern, 1922-2012: Antiwar Candidate Who Challenged Vietnam and Inspired a Generation
EXCLUSIVE: Two days before Sen. McGovern’s death on October 21, we aired Steve Vittoria’s award-winning documentary, "One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern," narrated by Amy Goodman. A family spokesperson has announced last week the 90-year-old McGovern was "at the end stages of his life." McGovern was best known for running against Richard Nixon in 1972 on a platform of withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, reducing defense spending, and providing amnesty to those who evaded the draft. Although he ultimately lost his election bid by a landslide, McGovern shattered the consensus in Capitol Hill around the Vietnam War as one of the first senators to speak out against the war. As a decorated World War II pilot who flew B-24 bombers over Nazi Germany, McGovern did not fit the stereotype of antiwar leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. He is also known for transforming how the Democratic Party chooses its presidential nominee and for his efforts to end world hunger. We play excerpts of "One Bright Shining Moment" about McGovern’s 1972 grassroots campaign for the presidency, featuring interviews with the candidate himself; supporters and activists like Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, Warren Beatty, Howard Zinn; and music from Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Donovan and Elvis Costello. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Sacramento, California, as we continue our 100-city Silenced Majority Election 2012 tour. Today, a Democracy Now! special. We look at the life and legacy of the presidential candidate, the antiwar leader, Senator George McGovern.
A family spokesperson says the 90-year-old McGovern is no longer responsive and, quote, "at the end stages of his life." He has been in hospice care since Monday, suffering from a combination of age-related medical conditions that have worsened in recent months.
Senator McGovern is best known for running against Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election on a platform of withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, reducing defense spending, and providing amnesty to those who evaded the draft. As a decorated World War II pilot who flew B-24 bombers over Nazi Germany, McGovern did not fit the stereotype of antiwar leaders in the ’60s and ’70s. Although he ultimately lost his election bid by a landslide, he shattered the consensus in Capitol Hill around the Vietnam War as the first senator to speak out against the war.
Senator McGovern is also known for transforming how the Democratic Party chooses its presidential nominee. Four years prior to his ’72 run for the White House, he chaired the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. In 1982, the Democratic National Committee approved a new series of reforms, including the establishment of superdelegates to give the party more direct control over the selection of presidential candidates. Speaking on Democracy Now! in 2008, Senator McGovern described the impact of the reforms.
GEORGE McGOVERN: The '72 convention, which was the first one to come under the new McGovern reforms, was pretty evenly balanced between men and women. You looked out over that convention floor. We also said that there should be some consideration given to age groups. Some of the biggest delegations to the ’68 convention didn't have a single person 30 years of age or under, even though the transcendent issue of that time was the war in Vietnam, where everybody was under 30. So we corrected some serious imbalances in the way the delegations were put together.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Senator McGovern the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
Senator McGovern is the author of a number of books, including an autobiography and a story of his daughter’s struggle with alcoholism. He also wrote What It Means to Be a Democrat.
Well, today we turn to a 2005 documentary about George McGovern that I narrated called One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern. It’s written, directed and produced by Stephen Vittoria and traces Senator McGovern’s 1972 grassroots campaign for the presidency. It features interviews with McGovern supporters and activists, like Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, actor Warren Beatty, Howard Zinn. This clip begins with a 1972 campaign film for presidential candidate McGovern.
SADIE DEVELLO: I can’t afford to buy groceries, and I can’t afford to get sick. And believe me, I can’t afford to die.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: There are 25 million Americans over 65. They are mothers and wives. They are people who once belonged to somebody. And now they belong to nobody, not even the nation their husbands and sons died for.
WARREN BEATTY: It’s hard to find a person who has run for something that has engendered as much affection as George McGovern has engendered.
GLORIA STEINEM: I was waiting at the airport for somebody that Galbraith had been described to me as the senator from South Dakota, and he would give me a ride. So, I was looking around for somebody who looked like a senator and didn’t—didn’t really see anybody. There was this kind of uncertain man with an old, bulging briefcase and a too big suit.
GORE VIDAL: As you know, all politicians are [blank]. I suppose George has his aspects, too, not to mention myself.
GLORIA STEINEM: And I was surprised because, I don’t know, I was a young journalist. I hadn’t met that many senators. I expected him to—to look like a senator. But after we got in the car together and I began to listen to him, I discovered he not only sounded like a senator, he sounded like a great mind of history.
CHIP BERLET: I remember standing on the floor of the convention as McGovern was being nominated and looking over at the Colorado delegation. And there’s, you know, young people and black people and all kinds of different folks in that delegation. It really was diverse. And everyone was crying.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Well, of course, all of this talk about him as a softy, you know, and that he didn’t have the spine to be president was just preposterous. I mean, the man is an authentic American hero.
JIM ABOUREZK: He wanted to be there to advance civilization. If McGovern had won in ’72, he would have led this nation on a compassionate future.
JIM BOUTON: I liked George McGovern because he wasn’t a firebrand, even though they tried to take everything he said and turned it into a table-pounding pronouncement. But he wasn’t a firebrand. He was—he was calm. He was—he was thoughtful. He was very articulate. How often have we had those things in our entire history?
HARVEY KORNBERG: I mean, after Watergate, I used to drive around—I drove around with a sticker. I insisted and said, "Don’t blame me. I voted for McGovern." You know, that’s the way—that’s the way I saw it.
J.C. SVEC: Can you imagine if McGovern had become president? Can you imagine a world without Watergate, without yellow ribbons, without Madison Avenue-induced patriotism? Can you imagine a world that wasn’t hungry?
DICK GREGORY: If you took darkness and lit one match, from miles away you can see that little match. And that’s what—that’s what he was able to do, you know. But he—his light was too bright. That’s what it was. His light was too bright, because he didn’t understand compromise.
REV. MALCOLM BOYD: McGovern is in this school, is in this tradition. What he did is as important now as it was then, because American history isn’t something in the past. It’s continuing. So we are a part of it. Tape is rolling on American history.
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: There is great difficulty, however, in fighting a guerrilla war. You need 10 to one, or 11 to one, especially in terrain as difficult a South Vietnam. We don’t see the end of the tunnel, but I must say, I don’t think it’s darker than it was a year ago, in some ways lighter.
SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We can soon bring our troops home. Victory is near.
PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: We still seek no wider war.
SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Once in 1962, I participated in such a prediction myself. But for 20 years, we have been wrong.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love.
AMY GOODMAN: With the Vietnam War drilling a hole through Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, as well as everyday American life, New York political alchemist Allard Lowenstein roamed the halls of Capitol Hill looking to dump Johnson. He knew that good, old Uncle Baines couldn’t be beat, but someone had to raise the moral flag against the war. And his first stop was Bobby Kennedy’s office. The first-term New York senator understood the rightness of the cause but knew that throwing his hat in the ring would surely wreck the Democratic Party and possibly his own career. Kennedy suggested South Dakota Senator George McGovern, probably the most ardent critic of the war. In recommending his friend, Bobby said, "George is the most decent man in the Senate. As a matter of fact, he’s probably the only one."
GEORGE McGOVERN: Nobody dreamed that Johnson would resign and decide not to run again. I thought, since I was up for re-election to the Senate, it would be better to get a senator who didn’t have to forfeit his seat in the Senate, so I suggested Gene McCarthy.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: But the one thing that he was really concerned about was that the establishment was going to pursue this war. Nobody was going to be there to make a case against the war at the Democratic convention.
GEORGE McGOVERN: So, finally I decided I would do it. I was right in the middle of a campaign for re-election to the Senate, and that I was simply trying to hold the Kennedy delegates and the Kennedy standard at the convention. I’ve always been glad I did that.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: I share with countless other Americans a profound sense that the untimely deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, and as well of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, have left a painful void of unfulfilled dreams that all of us must try to restore. It is for these purposes that I declare myself a candidate for the presidential nomination.
GLORIA STEINEM: I think that some of us probably enraged Eugene McCarthy with buttons that said "McGovern is the real Eugene McCarthy," because he had had the record on the war that McCarthy hadn’t.
PROTESTERS: The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!
JERRY RUBIN: The Democratic Party has blood on its hands, and because there’s a struggle going on in the world today between young people and between those old menopausal men who run this country, and it’s a struggle about what the future of this country is about.
SEN. HUBERT HUMPHREY: I think that withdrawal would be totally unrealistic and would be a catastrophe.
AMY GOODMAN: Chicago, 1968, definitely not the summer of love, a moment when the better angels of our nature was so unmistakably missing. It was also when the 1972 candidacy of George McGovern began to mount.
GORE VIDAL: I first met him in 1968, the Chicago convention, where the police rioted and we saw American democracy in action. American democracy was then called Mayor Daley.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: The issue was Vietnam. And if you were against the war, you got your head cracked. It was that simple.
WARREN BEATTY: I remember being outside of the Hilton Hotel in Chicago the night that Hubert Humphrey had won the nomination, and being gassed.
GLORIA STEINEM: We were seeing a police riot, as Jimmy Breslin later aptly named it. You know, the police were completely out of control.
GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, it was a sickening scene. You saw two groups of young people facing each other: the youngsters who were protesting the war and then these young policemen. I, frankly, had a tinge of sympathy for both sides, because it was the war that tore that city apart.
RON KOVIC: I also remember at the Bronx VA, I remember being in one of the rooms, one of the paraplegics. And the TV was on. And I remember the chant, "The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!"
JIM ABOUREZK: Mayor Daley played it perfectly to get everybody angry at McGovern and the peace campaign.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: His authority was being challenged, in his mind, by people who really had no right to challenge it. They had no experience in politics.
HARVEY KORNBERG: And it was ugly, and ugly as hell, and that Daley just had incredible control over his police. I mean, these were scenes right out of Nazi Germany in the early ’30s after Hitler took power, cracking down on any dissent.
RON KOVIC: And I remember saying to myself, almost in a whisper, "That’s wrong. That’s—what they’re doing, that’s wrong."
CHIP BERLET: And I think that was the first time I really began to get scared about the possibility of the government becoming my enemy.
RON KOVIC: All the veterans in the room were cheering on the beating of the protesters, but I didn’t cheer that night. I remember feeling an empathy for those protesters who were being beaten. So things were changing inside of me.
DICK GREGORY: I just laid on the floor, and I laughed so hard said. My wife said, "What’s wrong?" I said, "The world has changed today. The white folks around the world have never seen their white children get beat up." I mean, white folks had always looked at the cops: this is the guy that comes get my cat out the tree in the suburbs, and he’s always there to keep them away from me. Remember one thing: going into that ’68 convention, the chant was "support your local police." Coming out of that ’68 convention, something happened.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: Abe Ribicoff probably enjoys the distinction of uttering the most famous line of the entire convention.
SEN. ABRAHAM RIBICOFF: With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago. With George McGovern, we wouldn’t have a National Guard.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: Richard Daley saw this as a personal attack. And in a way, it was a personal attack: it was his police force. And, of course, he mouthed the famous reply to Abe Ribicoff. There’s a lot of debate over what he actually said. And here you might want to run that tape and let people—
STEPHEN VITTORIA: What do you think he said?
THOMAS J. KNOCK: Well, I can’t remember exactly what it was.
SEN. ABRAHAM RIBICOFF: How hard it is.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: I don’t want to say. I’m sorry, I just—
STEPHEN VITTORIA: OK. That’s all right.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: I can’t—I can’t use those words.
STEPHEN VITTORIA: OK, I only want you to do—
THOMAS J. KNOCK: He calls him a [blank] son of a—no, he’s anti-Semitic in this. He says something like, "You" —he uses the word "Jew" in this also. You can get—there are better people than me to do that, really, I think.
STEPHEN VITTORIA: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED: Saved by the plane.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: Yeah. God bless you, yeah, yeah, yeah.
SEN. ABRAHAM RIBICOFF: How hard it is to accept the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll continue with Steve Vittoria’s documentary One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: "Universal Soldier" by Donovan, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with the award-winning documentary, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, directed by Stephen Vittoria. A family spokesperson has confirmed that the 90-year-old former presidential candidate and antiwar leader George McGovern is at the end stages of his life in hospice care. He’s now unresponsive. We return to the documentary.
AMY GOODMAN: A sign reads: "Kill one person, call it murder. Kill a million, call it foreign policy."
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: There are a lot of Americans who were not offended by the idea that we’re at war and killing a lot of natives. There were still a lot of people who thought, "Yeah, a pretty good thing. Let’s go get those gooks."
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: There has been and continues to be opposition to the war in Vietnam on the campuses and also in the nation. As far as this kind of activity is concerned, we expect it. However, under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it.
DICK GREGORY: The president of the United States said nothing you young kids would do would have any effect on him. Well, I suggest to the president of the United States, if he want to know how much effect you youngsters can have on the president, he should make one long-distance phone call to the LBJ ranch and ask that boy how much effect you can have.
AMY GOODMAN: McGovern made a number of trips to Vietnam to see the battlefields firsthand, the jungles that were claiming so many lives. His first trip was in 1965.
GEORGE McGOVERN: I went to a hospital of American soldiers in Saigon. The very first person I talked to was a captain. And the nurse who was taking me around said the captain got the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. I said, "Well, congratulations, Captain." And as I did so, his lips started to quiver. And I looked down on the bed, and his feet were gone. He had stepped on a mine and blown off his feet about six inches above the ankles. And I visited with him for a while, and I said, "Well, congratulations again, Captain, on the Purple Heart this morning." He said, "That’s easy to get in this damn place."
I went into a civilian hospital where the Vietnamese were being cared for. They were the victims of shrapnel from American gunfire. One woman had a baby that she was holding. The baby’s head was completely wrapped in bandages except for the eyes. And I asked her if she would mind if I took a picture of her and that baby. She picked up an old rag to wipe some of the blood off the bandages on the baby’s face and then tried to smile wanly. And I took that picture, which I still have.
Douglas MacArthur told the Senate Armed Services Committee after the bitter experience in Korea, any American commander-in-chief who ever again commits young Americans to warfare on the Asian mainland ought to have his head examined.
AMY GOODMAN: By mid-1970, with Nixon in office a year and a half, his secret plan to end the war obviously nothing more than campaign rhetoric, he and Kissinger roll out another fairy tale: Vietnamization.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: The idea was to reduce the number of American troops in Vietnam at the same time you increased the size of the army of South Vietnam. The catch there, however, was that in order to even Vietnamize the Vietnam War that way, you still had to sustain the bombing. And under Richard Nixon, it must be said that we dropped yet another equivalent of World War II on Vietnam, and, of course, Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia in the spring of 1970.
GEORGE McGOVERN: I thought it was just terrible the way the Nixon people handled Vietnam. We could have gotten out and saved 25,000 young American lives, probably at least a million Vietnamese lives. We killed two million people, but most of those people were the casualties of American bombers, tanks, flamethrowers, automatic weapons, chemical warfare, defoliation of the trees and all that sort of thing. So, Nixon was responsible for a great part of that by not ending that war when he came to power. And there’s no excuse for that war going on one month afterwards. The country was ready for some kind of a settlement at that point. I think that’s a tragedy.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.
J.C. SVEC: I grew up with the Bayonne Times. And I grew up with this little graphic in the corner of that front page, and it was a little silhouette of a soldier and a bayonet on a rifle. And that stood for how many killed in action in Vietnam. And if that didn’t scare the hell out of you as you were coming up to draft age, I don’t know what did. The fact that they could simplify human death to a little graphic on the front page of a newspaper, first scared you, and then made you sick.
SGT. MICHAEL BERNHARDT: CO’s order was to destroy the village and its inhabitants.
REPORTER: Why? Did you think the people in the village were Viet Cong?
SGT. MICHAEL BERNHARDT: Some of the people in the village—you say "people in the village." Some of the people in the village weren’t old enough to walk yet.
REV. MALCOLM BOYD: If we’re going to take the canvas of America, then there are stains on the canvas. And here is someone prophetically and courageously first admitting where the stains are rather than lying about them. We have got to confess sins, but then, it is never enough to confess sins—that’s cheap grace. You have to change the direction. Repentance means changing direction.
J.C. SVEC: George McGovern wanted out. He wanted—he wanted my friends and my relatives to come home, and not in a body bag.
AMY GOODMAN: Literally hours before Nixon and Kissinger invade Cambodia, McGovern and Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon introduce an amendment to the military procurement authorization bill that, if passed, would prohibit the use of funds to finance American military operations in Southeast Asia after 31 December, 1970, the end of the year. The amendment was the first serious attempt by either the House or the Senate to reclaim from the executive branch the war-making and war-funding powers clearly granted to them by the United States Constitution.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: The invasion of Cambodia just set the American political landscape on fire. It revitalized the antiwar movement, which had flagged somewhat in the previous months, and it set in motion demonstrations all across the United States on college campuses, and of course culminated in the tragic shootings at Kent State University on May 4th, 1970.
UNIDENTIFIED: "The four who died here, the nine who were wounded here, the many who faced a Portage grand jury, they did more for their country than all the Nixons and the Agnews and the Reagans could possibly do." William Kunstler.
HARVEY KORNBERG: Remember, this was a—this was pure tragedy in that sense. The National Guardsmen who were sent to maintain order in Kent State were roughly the same age. In fact, a number of them attended Kent State themselves. I mean, one could have forecast that when Nixon extended the war into Cambodia, this would happen.
HOWARD ZINN: To me, as a historian, what this tells me is that this is part of an old story. It’s really not a surprise that the United States government would turn on its own people. The history of the labor movement is a history of government forces—policemen, sheriff, Army—clubbing, killing, disabling a people who are out on strike.
DICK GREGORY: That same group had went to Orangeburg, South Carolina, to the University of South Carolina and killed students. They went to Jackson State in Mississippi and killed students. And nobody gave a damn—until they went and did the same thing. And we try to tell white folks, what they do to me today, they do to y’all next week. They don’t understand that.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: I think Hunter Thompson said, they looked at the people, they didn’t see them as protesters, they saw them as criminals. Well, you deal with criminals in a strong-armed way, and if you can work up a good reason to do so, you shoot them. It was awful.
DICK GREGORY: When Kent State hit, we were glad, because now y’all had messed up. Well, that’s the way we looked at it. The sadness was there, but the outrage that’s going to come out of it is incredible.
CHIP BERLET: It was no longer a political cause to shut down the war, but we felt it was necessary to shut down the whole government, shut down the country, until people started to deal with what was happening and how America was being ripped apart.
GEORGE McGOVERN: I sat up more than once consoling the father of one of the girls who was killed. She wasn’t in the protest; she was just walking to her next class, and she took a fatal shot. And her father, who was a Pittsburgh steel worker, came to my Senate office and just wept. "What kind of a government is this?"
The atmosphere was very tense in Washington. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this country was never more divided over a war, with the exception of the Civil War. Our losses weren’t as heavy in Vietnam, but the numbers of people killed by our side was vastly greater. None of those people wanted a quarrel with the United States. And the great tragedy is that we stumbled into that war on the wrong side.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: In the summer of 1970, thousands of young people descended on Washington to lobby for the McGovern-Hatfield amendment. Capitol Hill was inundated by more mail than it ever received over any issue in American history. It was the thing people were talking about, the amendment to end the war. In September of 1970, the amendment finally came to a vote on the floor. Ninety-four senators were in their seats, and the gallery was filled, overflowing. Eleanor was there, the children were there. It was a highly dramatic moment.
GEORGE McGOVERN: Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for the human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across this land, young boys without legs or arms or genitals or faces or hopes. Don’t talk to them about bugging out or national honor or courage. It doesn’t take any courage at all for a congressman or a senator or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say, "We’re staying in Vietnam," because it isn’t our blood that is being shed. So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, that great parliamentarian of an earlier day: "A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood."
GORE VIDAL: And it’s a paraphrase of John Bright, who was the greatest radical orator in all England. He said, "I hear in this chamber, as we speak, the wings of the angel of death."
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll continue with Steve Vittoria’s documentary, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, in a moment, as George McGovern is in hospice care nearing the end of his life. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: "I Ain’t Marching Anymore," Phil Ochs, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
A family spokesperson says Senator George McGovern is now in the end stages of his life, in hospice care, unresponsive since Wednesday. He is surrounded by family. We continue now with the award-winning documentary, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern. It was written, directed and produced by Stephen Vittoria.
VOICEOVER: "No other metaphor but that of a guerrilla army on the move can describe the upheaval that was to shake and change the entire Democratic Party in the next ten weeks, for the march of George McGovern in those ten weeks would go down as a classic in American political history. ... a masterpiece of partisan warfare, its troops living off the land, tapping [into] frustration everywhere; ... all of them recruiting, preaching, persuading, stirring to action hearts hitherto unstirred by politics." Theodore White, The Making of the President 1972.
J.C. SVEC: McGovern gave us a reason to stand up and say, "Wait a minute. If it’s worth believing in, if it’s worth doing, I’m going to do it, no matter what the cost." And McGovern was doing that.
JIM BOUTON: A lot of political amateurs, a lot of people getting into politics for the first time, people feeling like they needed to—to step in and have a say and start to get involved in the actual gears of how—how politics worked.
GARY HART: We ran a different kind of campaign. We had no money, therefore couldn’t buy media. So we had to rely on grassroots volunteers. We knew that from the start, right from the start. And therefore, we made appeals on the campuses and to young people and to volunteers.
JIM BOUTON: And so, you had housewives and, you know, ex-baseball players and, you know, regular folks who had always watched these things on television. So if you were a professional politician, you were almost, by definition, disqualified.
AMY GOODMAN: New Hampshire, the birthplace of the McGovern army, "Live Free or Die." And the army went to work with a passion rarely seen. And then the candidates started pounding away, town after town, living room after living room. McGovern talked jobs. He talked unfair taxation, wasteful military spending, the big business havens of the Nixon plan. And, of course, he talked about ending the bloodshed in Vietnam—immediately.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Even if we stayed there and bomb for the next five years and Americans continue to die and we spend another $100 billion, five years from now we’re going to be right where we are now. So let’s recognize that we made a mistake and these young men have given their lives, and let’s quit killing other young men. Let’s bring this war to an end.
AMY GOODMAN: The so-called experts of conventional wisdom said that the young street fighters in the McGovern army couldn’t organize California. In fact, they said, nobody could. But as Gary Hart recalls, "We marched into Lotusland with the prairie statesman at the front of a ragtag army of guerrilla warriors."
GARY HART: In a way, this was as good as it was going to get, because the tide was with us. It was a triumph of the best of American politics, in a way, that a dark horse, unknown, could begin to lead one of the two major parties and possibly challenge the power structure.
AMY GOODMAN: Borrowed from the poetry from Jack Kerouac and traveling with the ghost of Robert Kennedy, McGovern embarks on a classic whistle-stop train trek through the San Joaquin Valley, the same trek Kennedy made in ’68.
VOICEOVER: "McGovern wasn’t campaigning against anyone. He was campaigning for something, for America’s heart and soul. He was seeking to lead America home again. The only opponent was Richard Nixon. And who could gainsay the rightness of that cause? This was the people’s train in the people’s valley and the people’s state. And soon, it would be the people’s country." Gary Hart, Right from the Start.
DICK GREGORY: You know, if you’ve been in the dark for so long, light hurts your eyes. Huh? That’s normal. I mean, do you remember Dracula? Didn’t he have to get back before the sun came out? OK, and so, people are the same way. People get comfortable with filth.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can also say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.
REPORTER: The Democrats put on a bizarre fashion show. If there had been credits for the Democratic convention, they would have read: "Leading man, George McGovern; stage manager, Larry O’Brien; fashions by Levi Strauss." The new young Democrats wore their T-shirts and blue jeans and Afros and dashikis as badges.
AMY GOODMAN: The challenge to McGovern’s winner-take-all California victory was a knockdown, drag-out fight, a fight the McGovern brain trust would eventually win, but a fight that left a great deal of damage in its wake. But for the moment, a bright and shining moment, the 1972 Democratic convention was George McGovern’s, a convention that looked like no other in American history, a convention that represented the joy of participatory democracy in the hands of average people, a victory over smoke-filled rooms populated by professional greed. For once in American politics, sunshine and light beat shadows and fog.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: But the president of United States can make a difference. He can set the moral and political tone of this country. He can speak out against injustice. He can use the power and the influence of that office to lead us in a more constructive and humane direction.
VOTE TALLY: Four votes for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; for Governor George Wallace, six votes; 86 and a half for Jackson; 119 votes for the next president, Senator George McGovern!
CONVENTION SPEAKER: Senator George McGovern, having received a majority vote of this convention’s certified delegates, is hereby declared the 1972 Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: From secrecy and deception in high places, come home, America.
UNIDENTIFIED: This was the most open political convention in American political history.
GLORIA STEINEM: I’ve been to a lot of Democratic conventions in my time, and I’ve witnessed Republican ones from afar. It was the only time I’ve ever seen a convention that actually looked something like the country.
HARVEY KORNBERG: And it seemed to indicate a new—a new dawn, that now politics was not only the preserve of older, white men.
JIM BOUTON: Probably the last unscripted convention in American political history. I don’t think anybody wanted to take a chance again at something so organic and natural and spontaneous.
HARVEY KORNBERG: Many of the opponents called it the convention of hippies, yippies, dippies and Jane Fonda, you see?
JIM BOUTON: We really felt that some decisions were actually going to be made down there, not in advance.
HARVEY KORNBERG: This joining together of so many causes, if you will, and over the Democratic Party’s platform, was incredible. We had planks in that platform never seen before—gay rights, for example, broad-based, real civil rights enforcement, abortion, a strong platform for women’s rights. These things were unheard of prior to 1972.
CHIP BERLET: This was democracy in action. This was, I think, for me, the peak of the campaign, was—was seeing that kind of emotion pouring out of people on the floor, because they felt that McGovern was going to treat them fairly and do his best, which is not something we have come to expect from politicians.
GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, that’s the highlight of my life, I guess, winning the Democratic nomination of the oldest political party in American history. I remember the hands reaching up, the eager, excited faces, people laughing and talking, some weeping. There was a lot of emotion and passion in that campaign. And I’ll take those memories with me the rest of my life.
VOICEOVER: "One had to be partial to a man whose delegates had the fair and average and open faces of an army of citizenry, as opposed to an army of the pols, and Aquarius knew then why the convention was obliged to be boring. There was insufficient evil in the room." Norman Mailer, St. George and the Godfather.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, come home, America.
WARREN BEATTY: It was a very good speech, because George was there with the substance. He was there with the content.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: From the entrenchment of special privilege and tax favoritism, from the waste of idle hands to the joy of useful labor.
THOMAS J. KNOCK: And probably the most beautifully delivered speech of McGovern’s entire career. He looked powerful. He sounded powerful.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: 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.
UNIDENTIFIED: His magnificent speech at the Democratic National Convention, I think, would have gone a long way in putting him in a viable position for the general election—except nobody saw it.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. In 1968, many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace. And since then, 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins. I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past 10 years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on inaugural day.
GEORGE McGOVERN: I said, in my own handwritten lines, "This country has made too many decisions in recent years behind closed doors, and it was those decisions that took us into Vietnam under the leadership of both parties. If I should become president of this country, I want those doors opened, and I want that war closed." That line gave me a lot of satisfaction.
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world.
RON KOVIC: "Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world." And we will, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern. We will seek that newer world, and we will never allow what happened to my generation to ever happen again. We will never forget the words on that late night in Miami of 1972. Those were precious words. Those were important words.
CHIP BERLET: There were a lot of people who were threatened by George McGovern. You had the rise of the neoconservative movement. These were the Democrats who supported the war and were Cold War liberals, and they wanted him stopped. And they were also horrified by the kind of social movements that students were involved in, and here was McGovern reaching out to dissident social movements.
JIM ABOUREZK: We were easily deceived by expert propagandists, which is what happened in '72. Republicans are very good at getting people to vote against their own interest. Why would anybody with an income of $25,000 a year vote Republican? I don't know. I just have no idea. And George McGovern had that same problem.
GORE VIDAL: You know, I was brought up in the ruling class. They hate the people. The Bush family, if you gave them sodium pentothal and asked them, you know, "What do you think about the American people?" you’ll hear such profanity as you never heard before. The American people are an obstacle. Constitution stuck us with all these elections.
CHIP BERLET: I think we threatened the leadership of the Democratic Party in a very visceral way, and I think that they felt that stopping McGovern actually might be best for the Democratic Party.
J.C. SVEC: They were in fear of their political lives, and they were in fear of what might happen if McGovern won.
HARVEY KORNBERG: If he was defeated, maybe the reforms that he brought about would be defeated also.
GARY HART: The only way I made sense of this after the fact was that it was a struggle for power—not much to do with the issues, but a lot to do with who was going to run the Democratic Party.
HARVEY KORNBERG: Sometimes the losing faction says—you know, gives you the bird and says, "Good, try and win without us."
CHIP BERLET: You had a whole range of movements that had really shaken the foundation of the United States. You had the civil rights movement. And from that came the antiwar movement. You had the women’s movement. You had the gay and lesbian rights movement. And all of these movements were making demands on America and asking for a new kind of rearrangement for power and privilege and a fairness and a seat at the table. But some people were completely horrified, especially by the lifestyle issues. And, I mean, it was bad enough that women wanted to be on top; they wanted to be on top of each other. Clearly, America was falling apart.
GARY HART: It’s a wonder anybody voted for him.
DICK GREGORY: If you look at the story of Jesus Christ, the one thing that keeps coming up was the word "no." "No." I mean, they said, "Look, man. We don’t want to kill you. The big man came in. Man, the Jews are crazy. Man, we don’t want to kill you. But just say that you’re not the son of the Father." He says, "No." He didn’t get into no high-fying or rapping. He just said, "No." Said, "Well, let me see this. Can we do" — "No." OK, "no" got him killed.
J.C. SVEC: We didn’t take the ball and run with it. McGovern had the ball. He didn’t drop it. I think he threw it up there, tried to pass it along. And the class of ’72 fumbled.
DICK GREGORY: Compromise wasn’t even in his psyche. And because of that, as filthy as America is today, it’s a better place because of that light. See, once the light hits, you can’t turn it off.
GLORIA STEINEM: But his strength is that he appeals to the hope in us. I suppose that’s his strength and his weakness at the same time, you know, because hope is a very unruly emotion.
DICK GREGORY: One day, when the real people have to write history, Nixon and them thugs will get a little footnote.
GLORIA STEINEM: He posits a possibility and leads us toward it. Without an idea, without imagination of change, you can’t have change. It’s the imagination that comes first.
REV. MALCOLM BOYD: His contribution is enormous, in a prophetic conscience, also pragmatic political way. In other words, we need far more McGoverns. We haven’t had them.
J.C. SVEC: I can only imagine what this country might have evolved into if McGovern had won that election. We probably would not be sitting here on a hot August afternoon talking about the what-ifs.
AMY GOODMAN: Excerpts from the 2005 documentary I narrated, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, written, directed and produced by Stephen Vittoria. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org.
A family spokesperson has confirmed that the 90-year-old Senator George McGovern, presidential candidate and antiwar leader, is no longer responsive and, quote, "at the end stages of his life." He’s surrounded by family in hospice care in South Dakota.
And that does it for our broadcast. Our Election 2012 Silenced Majority tour continues tonight in Los Angeles at 8:00 p.m. at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church at 3300 Wilshire. Saturday, we continue in Santa Barbara at 9:00 a.m. at La Casa de La Raza, 601 East Montecito Street; then San Luis Obispo at 1:30 p.m. at Cal Poly’s Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre. Then, our Santa Cruz event is 8:00 p.m. Saturday night at the Crocker Theater. At [2:00 p.m.] on Sunday, we’ll be in Sebastopol at the Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris Street; then at 7:00 p.m. in Oakland at the First Congregational Church in Oakland. On Monday, we’re in Marin County at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, where our "Expand the Debate" series continues.