When I heard about the death of former Sen. George McGovern, I had a fleeting thought that President Obama might invoke him at Monday’s foreign policy debate -- perhaps as part of an argument that Mitt Romney would be too willing to take the nation into war. I had second thoughts when I saw the White House’s statement of condolence, which has angered some of my liberal friends for the conspicuous absence of any reference to McGovern’s 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon.
The statement reads:
“George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved. He signed up to fight in World War II, and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe. When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace. And after his career in Congress, he became a leading voice in the fight against hunger. George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction, and Michelle and I share our thoughts and prayers with his family.”
All true, but why not mention that McGovern was the Democratic Party’s nominee? Because he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon? Because, even now, some voters (and they would tend to be Romney voters) wrongly equate the McGovern campaign with “acid, amnesty and abortion”? Given Obama’s own opposition to the war in Iraq as a candidate in 2008, it would have been natural for the president to note that McGovern also campaigned for president against an ill-advised foreign entanglement. Maybe Obama is just superstitious about reminding voters about a Democratic nominee who lost (and big-time, as Dick Cheney might say).
For many of Obama’s younger supporters, Vietnam and the ’72 election may be ancient history. But Obama also relies on superannuated baby boomers for whom McGovern remains an admired figure because he championed peace not in the abstract but in a grueling national campaign. And it isn’t just yesterday’s peaceniks who came to recognize that Vietnam was a misbegotten and bloody enterprise.
Given the tightness of the race, it may be unrealistic to expect Obama to mention McGovern tonight (I hope he’ll surprise me). But in expressing his sympathies the president should have acknowledged that McGovern was not just a “champion of peace” but the “peace candidate.” Bill Clinton did so, albeit in a self-referential way (“We first met George while campaigning for him in 1972”). The ‘72 campaign belonged in Obama’s statement too.