George McGovern: the Dalai Lama of American politics
A personal reflection about a presidential candidate who moved me — and whom I met through Hunter S. Thompson
It’s through that prism that I share a personal story that connects with a national event: George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president against Richard Nixon in 1972, died on October 21, 2012. (May his soul be sanctified).
Many politicians die — longtime Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter died on October 14, 2012. So why these pixels about George McGovern?
In my experience, he was the most spiritual of politicians — and I say these words from direct experience because he granted me an interview in his Washington, D.C. office when I was 20 years old.
Find a single snippet of tape where George McGovern ever slashed an opponent. Perhaps the only example of that was a private one, and one that involved the soul of the Democratic liberal tradition: When Hunter S. Thompson, a quasi-journalist who wrote some of the finest prose in the history of American political coverage — and “the least factual but most accurate book about the 1972 presidential campaign” (McGovern’s words to me) — endorsed Jimmy Carter as the Democratic nominee for the 1976 presidential election.
“Carter is the worst prick in politics”
McGovern objected to Thompson: “Carter is the worst prick in politics.” That is according to Hunter Thompson, and I have it on tape.
And it was Hunter, not a K-Street lobbyist, who set up my meeting with McGovern while I was writing for the student newspaper at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada — and filing to the Canadian University Press wire.
But McGovern in real life was at total peace with himself, if not the world, when I sat across a desk from him in a room imbued with history in Washington, DC.
Like Nixon and W’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, McGovern was a WWII bomber pilot.
He was elected to the U. S. Congress in 1956, when Eisenhower was president, and then held a seat in the U.S. Senate through the terms of five U.S. presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter.
A guinea-pig for the Willy Horton campaign
He was defeated in the 1980 election that, incredibly, brought Reagan to the office of president. The precursor of PAC-funded evangelical fundamentalists targeted three liberal senators with Willy Horton-type tactics.
Who funded the attack campaign on McGovern? Back then it was Joseph Coors, president of Coors the beer company.
I myself am reactionary and litigious in business when people sabotage my team’s efforts but McGovern was not when I asked him about the hit-pieces that removed him from the U. S. Senate.
“Marvellous free publicity”
“I didn’t understand it,” he reflected. “I didn’t get why these people were so vindictive.”
McGovern was never a Joltin’ Joe-style partisan like our current vice-president. He was a mild-mannered son of a Methodist preacher. He’d lived in Canada during his formative years.
That’s where I lived when I first met Hunter S. Thompson — and then McGovern.
Riding on a Greyhound bus home to Vancouver, British Colombia from a documentary I and a previous team of collaborators shot about a giant peace rally in Manhattan, I read a book called “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: 1972.”
In its pages, Hunter Thompson called McGovern “the most honest big-time politician in America.”
And he was.
In 1972, partisan proxies for Richard Nixon labelled McGovern the candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion.” McGovern did not have a thin-skinned Palin-esque reaction.
Instead, he turned the other cheek — and tongue-in-cheek — called the attacks, “marvellous free publicity.”
McGovern’s political legacy: Gary Hart and the Clintons
When I met McGovern, on the strength of Hunter’s introduction, the former senator was plotting his redux campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1984. He didn’t mean to win; He wanted to jolt the sheepish Democrats who’d caved to Reagan.
Gary Hart became the front-runner in that campaign, a McGovern 1972 organizer who had a star-turn in Thompson’s book. Two others who did not make Thompson’s cut, but also organized for McGovern: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
McGovern was a grounded and wise man, as devoid of ego as his national titles and fame would allow. He answered every painful question I asked about Watergate, the sigint spy operation that the Nixon administration aimed at the Democratic National Committee in the summer of ’72.
Did McGovern believe that Nixon ordered it? Did he believe John Dean? Yes and yes.
Did he reconcile with Nixon? Yes.
He forgave him for the deeply-flawed man that he was, and that we ultimately each can be.
McGovern did not have to live down personal demons or scandals like Ted Kennedy or his proteges Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. He was devoid of most demons that afflict American politicians.
As for scandalous behavior, what about his most ardent advocate in the U.S. press corps, Hunter Thompson?
Hunter Thompson, Teresa McGovern and death by addiction
McGovern didn’t really get Hunter Thompson. But he admired Hunter. And worried about him.
“Is he still doing drugs?” McGovern asked me. “Well, I guess alcohol is a drug.”
McGovern’s daughter Teresa had been in and out of rehab, and a decade after our meeting in DC she died of exposure after apparently binging.
Another decade later, Thompson himself died — by self-inflicted gun-shot while talking on the phone with his second wife.
What does it tell us that McGovern died at the age of 90 of natural causes, in peace, surrounded by those who loved and admired him — with no drama or pathos?
Although McGovern was politically assassinated by partisans he was never a figure of divisive partisanship. He is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from emotional hemophiliacs like Sarah Palin.
When I met him he exuded both charisma and accomplishment, with a quiet intellectual curiosity and subtle engagement.
He was already past his prime, as a pundit would say. But he was as close as a nationally-elected official in America gets to Dalai Lama karma.
Paul Kaihla is a founder of Soul’s Code, and in his previous career was a national print-media, political journalist.