I will admit it: I voted for George McGovern in 1972. And I don't regret it. Given a choice between earnest, sincere, principled McGovern and devious, conniving, paranoid Richard Nixon, I stand by my choice. McGovern died Sunday at age 90.
Which is not to say that I agreed with McGovern's entire platform or that the world would be better today if he had won. McGovern had one central issue: End the Vietnam War. For millions of supporters, that was all that mattered. The war had gone on far too long, killed far too many people and represented a detour from American principles. Lyndon Johnson had dragged us into that war, which proved to be his undoing, and Nixon had shamelessly manipulated the war issue to win the close 1968 election. McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, had seen war close up, and he knew the Vietnam War was wrong from the start.
Beyond the war, McGovern's platform was a hodge-podge of liberal ideas. I blanched at the announcement that McGovern proposed sending every American a monthly check, establishing a guaranteed minimum income. McGovern apparently had never assessed the fiscal costs or the social impact of such a policy, but he never repudiated the idea. Only later, when he had left the Senate and was running a small business did he admit that he wished he had known the difficulties businesses faced. His overwhelming 1972 loss was a repudiation of his economic and social agenda, not his Vietnam policy. He also hurt his campaign with bone-headed strategy, such as his handling of the Tom Eagleton affair. McGovern's victory forever changed the Democratic Party, which required racial, age and gender quotas for convention delegates. Along with the rise in state primaries, these rules took the nomination process out of the hands of party bosses. It was McGovern's party committee that created the rules that gave him the nomination.
In 1972, I was a young Coast Guard officer assigned to the Enlisted Personnel Division in Washington, D.C. I rode to work in a car pool of Nixon supporters and tried not to argue politics on our 20-minute commute. It was the experience of working in Washington and observing the inefficiencies and outright waste of government resources that turned me toward fiscal conservatism and made me forever dubious of political promises. I was shocked, in my youthful naivete, at the extent of McGovern's loss, carrying only one state out of 50.
A year later, I would follow intensely the Washington Post's reporting of the Watergate scandal, stories that confirmed my skeptical view of Nixon, and I would see the mood of Washington change when the humble, earnest Gerald Ford took over.