Reading the encomiums to the late Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota in the paper and on the web this week, one would think that it were he, and not Teddy Kennedy, who deserved the title “Liberal Lion of the Senate.”
But, as they described the former 1972 Democratic presidential candidate as having a mild and soft-spoken demeanor, quite the opposite of Kennedy’s blustering demagoguery, perhaps “Liberal Pussycat of the Senate” might have been more appropriate for McGovern.
It’s not the intent of this column to violate the Latin maxim, “De mortuis nil nisi bonum,” which means “Say nothing but good of the dead.” It’s always wise to err on the side of mercy regarding the deceased, both for the sake of their memory and the feelings of their families—and also because it’s good to encourage others to return the favor for those we love and/or admire.
But the published accounts that I read went far beyond the normal give-and-take of a normal political obituary. Surely we can differentiate between a departed person’s human qualities and the public impact of his life.
Thus, it’s important to contribute some things to the record that were, well, strangely missing from many of the newspaper accounts that I read.
As they noted, McGovern was a combat veteran of the Army Air Corps in World War II, where he won the Distinguished Flying Cross. His personal heroism is well worth commending, as is his obvious honesty and care and concern for others.
And it is also true he was a noteworthy historical figure. McGovern’s presidential candidacy represented a real dividing line, a turning point, in the history of American politics—and in the history of the Democratic Party he represented.
But his liberal politics, described in glowing terms in the media, hardly were worthy of praise.
So we need also to note that he and those ideological soul mates who followed him fortunately failed to achieve the full goals he had set for himself and the movement he personified and typified. The left-wing economic and social nostrums he promoted, no matter how much they gleam in retrospect in the minds of liberal media and political hagiographers, were doomed to fail as effective public policies, as they have always failed in the past and are now failing at the hands of the current “progressive” crowd in Washington, who are in many ways the heirs of McGovernism.
But perhaps they are no longer heirs of McGovern himself, who had a sort of epiphany of capitalism as his private life progressed.
Though McGovern is often presented as the left-wing version of conservativism’s Barry Goldwater, the surface similarities of their two crash-and-burn presidential campaigns are subsumed in the differing long-term impacts of their widely disparate political philosophies.
In both cases, the ideological heirs of each candidate succeeded in eventually grabbing the reins of power in their respective political parties.
But the difference is that Goldwater’s chief heir, Ronald Reagan, created a series of substantial triumphs, including tax reform and the end of the Cold War entirely in America’s favor, that no McGovernite can point to.
Bill Clinton, the most successful Democratic president since McGovern, is chiefly remembered (beyond his Oval Office romps) for two essentially conservative achievements, a budget surplus and a wide-ranging reform of welfare, both achieved with the support of congressional Republicans.
Goldwater would have been proud to have those two bullet points on his resume, had he won his race.
Meanwhile, McGovern’s advocacy for interventionist government at home and disengagement from our obligations abroad continue to have little support among the American people.
And while they may be characteristically leery of military interventions without clear goals and benchmarks for achievement (which was Lyndon Johnson’s legacy, not Goldwater’s), Americans still support a strong national defense.
But the main point about McGovern that his eulogies omitted was the revelation about government intervention (in his own words, “red tape”) he received firsthand when he tried to run a small business—a Connecticut inn—in later life.
Let him tell us in his own words, excerpted from a column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1992:
“I … wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.
“Today we are much closer to a general acknowledgment that government must encourage business to expand and grow. We intuitively know that to create job opportunities we need entrepreneurs who will risk their capital against an expected payoff. Too often, however, public policy does not consider whether we are choking off those opportunities.
“My own business perspective has been limited to that small hotel and restaurant in Stratford, Conn., with an especially difficult lease and a severe recession. But my business associates and I also lived with federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc.
“While I never have doubted the worthiness of any of these goals, the concept that most often eludes legislators is: ‘Can we make consumers pay the higher prices for the increased operating costs that accompany public regulation and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape?’
“It is a simple concern that is nonetheless often ignored by legislators. For example, the papers today are filled with stories about businesses dropping health coverage for employees. We provided a substantial package for our staff at the Stratford Inn. However, were we operating today, those costs would exceed $150,000 a year for health care on top of salaries and other benefits. There would have been no reasonable way for us to absorb or pass on these costs.”
McGovern’s passing provides an occasion not only to mourn the loss of a one-time hero, but an opportunity to be thankful that not even a decorated veteran of the nation’s most substantial military victory could sell his fellow Americans on the wisdom of collectivism.
Indeed, if there is any lesson to be learned from his experience, it would be in his later words that provide a suitable correction of his former political views:
“Far too often, public policy chokes off the opportunities businesses need to create jobs and grow.”
Not a bad thing to consider as we consider voting soon on politicians who will either take those words to heart—or continue to ignore them.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org.