The New Republic and George McGovern

The controversy over whether Howard Dean is another George McGovern and the endorsement of Joe Lieberman by The New Republic has inspired me to dig up some of what The New Republic wrote in 1971 and 1972 about George McGovern’s presidential campaign.

Looking at contemporary writings can be interesting, because they can tell you what people were thinking when they didn’t know what we know now (or when they knew things which we’ve forgotten). For example, in 1971, the name “George McGovern” did not connote “49-state loser”, and people thought of McGovern in a different way than we do now: As a respected two-term United States Senator, and the architect of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

In this excerpt from the lead editorial of The New Republic after McGovern officially began his campaign in January 1971, you can see some similarities between the nascent McGovern campaign and the Dean campaign of several months ago:

Announcing his candidacy last week, McGovern said: “We must have the courage to admit that however sincere our motives, we made a dreadful mistake in trying to settle the affairs of the Vietnamese people with American troops and bombers. . . . There is now no way to end it and to free our prisoners except to announce a definite, early date for the withdrawal of every American soldier. I make that pledge without reservation.” Vietnam is one of various controversies on which the Senator from South Dakota has taken a position “without reservation.” It is his strength, because the old equivocations are sterile; it is his weakness, because again last week the Democratic Party, in the House of Representatives, showed how unready it is to become a modern party, one that commands the confidence of a disaffected and independent-minded new generation.

At first glance, McGovern’s move appears audacious. Not because Mr. Nixon is invincible; on the contrary, he is highly vulnerable. The cities are getting sicker; the war has widened (though American casualities have declined); blacks and whites, young and not-so-young are at odds; unemployment and inflation are rising; and by such nominations as those of Carswell and Haynsworth, the President has lost credit even with conservatives, who were offended by his disregard for quality and his having played Southern politics with the highest tribunal. It takes no audacity to challenge Mr. Nixon. But it takes some daring for a Democrat in January of 1971 to take on Senator Muskie (and in the New Hampshire primary, too), for Muskie has been chosen by the polls and most political writers, prematurely we think, as the certain consensus candidate.

McGovern today is somewhat reminiscent of candidate Estes Kefauver in 1952. They start from behind the goal, they must maneuver end runs around the conventional power blocs and public opinion makers, so as to get to the voters themselves. They don’t expect to be carried along by charisma. They gather force and following by demonstrations of concern for people and by highmindedness. Now of course, no Democrat who has twice been elected to the House of Representatives and twice to the United States Senate from Republican South Dakota is a barefoot boy, and McGovern is not. But it is one of his attractions that he looks nonprofessional. To many Americans, “politician” has come to signify self-seeking guile, which they distrust. Whether the distrust is a bit of folk wisdom or plain ignorance is beside the point. It is an asset of McGovern’s that he conveys a disinterested dedication, the sort that leads a man to step in where more circumspect colleagues fear to tread.

— from “The Audacity of George McGovern”, The New Republic, 30 January 1971, pgs 7-8.

More to follow.

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