20 years later,McGovern can forgive the past

ROGER SIMON

July 15, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

NEW YORK -- They always love you when you get old. And no longer can do them any harm.

So this week the Democratic Party loves George McGovern.

Four years ago, McGovern sat in the balcony of the Omni convention hall in Atlanta on the last night the Democratic convention. Down below, Michael Dukakis, the glow of victory lighting up his face, accepted his party's nomination.

And then Dukakis summoned the VIPs of the party -- past, present and future -- to the podium to share his glory.

One by one, they came down and crowded the stage until there were a score, two score, a hundred of them standing there and waving to the roaring crowd.

And up in the balcony George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, sat alone. Unsummoned. Unwanted. Unloved.

"Those sons of bitches," he said that night. "There's not one policy I had back then that they don't have now. But now they don't want to know I exist."

The Democrats did not want to be associated with George McGovern's defeat -- he won only one state and the District of Columbia -- but soon they would taste defeat again with Dukakis.

And now, with McGovern turning 70 on Sunday and the 20th anniversary of his nomination at hand, the party has decided to be generous: It has given him a limousine and a VIP pass.

He has not been invited to speak at this convention, and Bill Clinton, his Texas coordinator in 1972, did not attend the party thrown in McGovern's honor this week. But, generally speaking, McGovern has been forgiven.

Not that he needs anyone's forgiveness. Because George McGovern was one of the last candidates in either party to stand for something instead of standing for nothing.

"The one transcendent issue in 1972 was the war in Vietnam," McGovern said over a cup of coffee this week.

"It completely dominated American life morally, ethically and politically."

And George McGovern had a solution. He would end the war immediately. That was the position. Take it or leave it.

Today, candidates cobble together coalitions and broaden their bases and never risk offending anybody. So instead of standing for something, they often stand for everything. Which is the same thing as standing for nothing.

This was not George McGovern's way. "I announced that the day I was inaugurated the war would be over," he said. "All American forces would be withdrawn from Vietnam in 60 days subject to the release of our prisoners of war."

McGovern did not win. But the Richard Nixon campaign was so worried about him that it launched the Watergate break-in. And, in the end, Congress forced upon Nixon the end to the war that McGovern had promised.

Today, McGovern remains politically unreconstructed. Virtually no Democrat in this city this week wants to be called a liberal -- except George McGovern.

"I know it's not in vogue," he said, "but liberalism has a great tradition.

"Clinton and Gore is a good ticket and will have appeal. Would I like to see a ticket that was more to the left? Yes. But this will be a true test of whether the moderate Democrats can win the White House."

Clinton and Al Gore will be tested. If victorious, they will taste the sweetness. If defeated, they will taste the gall.

And if you tell the American people you are ready for the first, you must also get yourself ready for the second.

Walter Mondale was the Democratic nominee 12 years after McGovern, and Mondale ended up getting four fewer electoral votes than McGovern did.

He called McGovern and asked him when the pain stopped, when you woke up in the morning and did not feel sick to your stomach.

"I'll tell you when I get there," George McGovern told him. "I'll tell you when I get there."

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