"Surely he hath borne our Griefs, and carried our Sorrows/Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD, and afflicted." - Isaiah LIII, 4
LONDON — I heard the sad news about George McGovern, the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate — age 90, in hospice, said to be "unresponsive" — as I was on my way to the Tate Britain to visit its stunning exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelites, whose unsparing naturalism and often tragic subject matter suddenly suited my newly melancholy mood.
Wandering through the galleries as I glumly reflected on that dainty euphemism, "unresponsive," i.e. comatose — and his daughter Ann's more blunt assessment, that her father was "nearing the end" — I looked up from my reverie and found myself gazing at "The Scapegoat," the extraordinary 1851 work by William Holman Hunt. The biblical quotation above adorns the top of the frame, while below the inscription reads, "And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited." (Leviticus XVI, 22)
I was utterly transfixed by the power of this painting, whose grim composition offered an almost mystical relevance to my ruminations. Inspired by Hunt's first visit to the Holy Land and his research into Biblical legends, it depicts the hapless goat ritually cast out into the wilderness by the ancient Hebrews, bearing a scarlet cloth on its horns representing the collective sins of the community.
As portrayed by Hunt, a bleaker scene could hardly be imagined. The luckless beast stands in the foreground, mouth agape as it gasps for breath, its doleful eyes rolled heavenward in futile supplication as it totters on faltering legs. Around it, a barren landscape of perfect desolation: the salty flats of the Dead Sea, littered with the skeletal remains of other doomed creatures who perished before.
I'm always wary of resting too heavily on metaphors — as the British humorist Spike Milligan said of cliches, they're like handrails for a crippled mind — but this one was inescapable, and it sent me hurtling back into time 40 years before, when I worked in McGovern's presidential campaign.
As it was for many of us, it was my first foray into politics. Although 18-year-olds had been granted the vote a year before, I was still too young to cast my own ballot. So, fired up by youthful idealism and undisturbed by any intrusion of political reality, I plunged into fevered volunteer work on the McGovern campaign, my 15-year-old brother in tow beside me.
The Vietnam War raged on, despite Nixon's promised "secret plan" to end it, and the draft was still in effect. Rejecting the moderate findings of an obscenity commission originally charted by President Johnson, Nixon threatened a new crackdown on smut, not exactly a top policy priority for a teenage boy with raging hormones. And his "Operation Intercept" program aimed at interdicting cheap Mexican marijuana flowing over the border - well, let's just say any adolescent of that era with a measurable pulse had compelling reasons to prefer McGovern.
That said, I had learned at my father's knee that Tricky Dick represented everything loathsome in postwar American politics. He launched his career in 1946 by Red-baiting FDR liberal Rep. Jerry Voorhees out of his long-held congressional seat, then followed that up by cross-filing in the Democratic primary two years later and obscuring his Republican affiliation so effectively that he defeated the Democratic opponent in his own party primary. Two years later, in 1950, capitalizing on his exploits as an anti-Communist crusader in pursuit of alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss, he defeated incumbent Sen. Helen Gahagan Douglas by attacking her as "pink right down to her underwear." By 1952, Eisenhower plucked him out of the Senate to join the ticket as vice-president. But not everyone who liked Ike also liked Nixon, and explosive revelations of a hidden slush fund from political supporters soon prompted his legendary "Checkers" speech, a desperate but successful effort to save his career. After a failed presidential run in 1960 and in quick succession, the California gubernatorial defeat in 1962 - capped by his embittered blast at the press, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore" - the political establishment pronounced him dead and buried.
Until, that is, a reanimated Nixon rose from the grave in 1968 with what became known as a "Southern strategy" of thinly-veiled racial messaging coupled with pandering to fears of urban unrest and vows to restore law and order. By 1972, the Nixon campaign - "Four More Years," "Now More Than Ever" - was rolling in lobbyist cash, run by a sinister cabal of lackeys heading up a campaign operation called The Committee to Re-Elect the President (aptly known as CREEP), while in the background lurked a mysterious unsolved burglary hinting at even darker misdeeds yet to be revealed.
In short, Nixon to us was The Fiend Incarnate. And imbued with youthful idealism and base adolescent self-interest, we eagerly enlisted in what cynics mockingly dismissed as McGovern's "children's crusade."
We did it all, from cold-calling potential donors to writing them personal thank-you notes. We set up for events, greeted walk-ins, canvassed precincts, handed out door-hangers, put up lawn signs. We stuffed envelopes and leafleted factory gates. We met visiting pols who'd agreed to host local fundraisers, including then-state Sen. George Moscone, later to be elected - and murdered - as mayor of San Francisco. Once, we even crashed a Nixon homecoming rally at the Ontario Airport, talking our way in and getting as close as we could to the candidate's podium before proudly stripping off our jackets to flaunt our McGovern for President T-shirts. How we avoided getting pummeled by the crowd or roughed-up by security I'll never know.
Heading into the final stretch, we dialed names off mimeographed lists to get out the vote, and even drove people to the polls on Election Day (for a kid with a license less than a year, the liability today would be unimaginable.) Oblivious to the polls, we knew that somehow good would triumph.
And so, on election night, we were stunned - and crushed - when McGovern was buried by a 49-state landslide in which he lost even his own state of South Dakota.
He broke our hearts, and as the song says, the first cut is the deepest. But where some turned away in disgust and disillusionment, I found a new sense of engagement and empowerment. Yes, we lost. But we did something that mattered: We believed. We participated. We acted.
And not long after, when the Watergate scandal exploded and the foulness of Nixon's "White House horrors" was finally revealed to the world, we felt we had finally been vindicated.
McGovern, however, never recovered. His campaign was — is — viewed by party regulars as the low-point in modern Democratic politics, emblematic of everything wrong with the nomination and vetting process, a casualty of naive amateurs and interlopers, the very apotheosis of far-left, unelectable self-destructive kookery.
Forty years down the road, there's a lot I wish he would have done differently. His foreign policy isolationism looks more like modern Republicanism than the FDR global engagement I prefer. His cavalier and irresponsible VP selection of Sen. Thomas Eagleton rivals that of Sarah Palin. He made it almost a point of pride to alienate the core constituencies any Democrat needs to win. And ultimately, he just had no clue what he was up against, which raises real questions about what might have followed as President.
As I said, metaphors can be over-extended. But George McGovern never deserved to become the lonely scapegoat for the entire Democratic Party's failure of imagination, of principle, of nerve, and ultimately of competence.
He was an honorable, decent, idealistic and conscientious politician. Now he is dying, abandoned and alone in the political wilderness. With his passing, it's long past time for Democrats to lift the burden of all the sin and iniquity they have inflicted on his reputation and show him the respect and affection he surely has earned.
Editor's update: McGovern died early Sunday morning, Oct. 21, under hospice care in South Dakota. He was 90 years old.