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George McGovern

By Edward Zelinsky


On 15 November 1969, I was shivering on the Mall in Washington, D.C., surrounded by a band of self-proclaimed Maoists celebrating the prospect of a Viet Cong victory. This was the second “Moratorium” against the Vietnam War. While the first Moratorium in October had a decidedly mainstream flavor, the tone of the November event was markedly different.

I was conflicted on that cold November day in Washington. I opposed the Vietnam War, as did the thousands of others standing on the Mall that day. But, unlike many of the people surrounding me, I did not oppose America (or Amerika, as they spelled it on their banners).

And then Senator George McGovern came to the podium. In the tones of his native South Dakota (also evocative of my home state of Nebraska), McGovern proclaimed: “We oppose this war because we love the flag.” This was an unpopular message with many on the Mall that day.

But it was a message I wanted to hear. While those surrounding me started booing, I stood up to applaud. As I did so, I thought of the flag the Marine Corps had handed my mother six years earlier at my father’s funeral in Omaha. I was grateful to Senator McGovern for articulating what I felt.

In the spring, I subsequently met Senator McGovern. After the tragic shootings at Kent State, Yale College, like many other educational institutions, effectively suspended its educational mission. I was one of the student leaders of a Yale anti-war lobbying day in Washington. One thousand students bussed from New Haven to the nation’s capital where, joined by Yale President Kingman Brewster and other leaders of the university, they implored the members of Congress to end the war.

At the conclusion of the day in a auditorium on Capitol Hill, I stood before my impatient student peers, not quite knowing what to do. Then, Senator McGovern led three of his senatorial colleagues to address the assembly. While I was grateful to Senator McGovern in November for his comments, at this dramatic moment, I felt that Senator McGovern had personally rescued me.

As the 1972 presidential campaign began, the influential economist James Tobin (later a Nobel prize winner) conveyed his assessment to me (and others) that McGovern was the best candidate the Democratic Party had to offer. While I was not active in the campaign, I initially shared Professor Tobin’s enthusiasm.

And then things started going wrong. Many of Senator McGovern’s obituaries describe the McGovern campaign as an inept, leftward lunge from which the Democratic Party has yet to fully recover. McGovern himself later joked that he had run for president in the worst possible way.

The McGovern campaign’s handling of Tobin’s “demogrant” proposal was, for me, the low point. Tobin’s proposal was a variation of the negative income tax, then favored by such conservative thinkers as Milton Friedman. The Nixon Administration itself had advanced similar proposals for a federal guaranteed income.

However, when the Nixon campaign ridiculed Tobin’s plan, the McGovern campaign unceremoniously dumped Tobin and his proposal. This was particularly shabby treatment of a distinguished intellectual and public servant.

The historian Stephen Ambrose bemoaned that McGovern was a genuine war hero (a decorated pilot during World War II) who refused to exploit his war record during his presidential campaign. Only twelve years earlier, John Kennedy had made PT 109 a catchword of American politics.

While the criticisms of McGovern as presidential candidate contain much force, I remain grateful to Senator McGovern for his comments on the Mall four decades ago. R.I.P.

Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. His monthly column appears here.

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