A longtime progressive who stood for tax reform and a national health insurance, George McGovern was also a serious opponent of the Vietnam War and conducted his 1972 presidential campaign on ending it.
“Never a showman, he made his case with a style as plain as the prairies where he grew up, often sounding more like the Methodist minister he’d once studied to be than a longtime U.S. senator and three-time candidate for president.
“A decorated World War II bomber pilot, McGovern said he learned to hate war by waging it. In his disastrous race against Nixon, he promised to end the conflict in Vietnam and cut defense spending by billions of dollars. He helped create the Food for Peace program and spent much of his career believing the United States should be more accommodating to the former Soviet Union.
“McGovern was tortured by the selection of Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton as the vice presidential nominee, and 18 days later, following the disclosure that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression, the decision to drop him from the ticket despite having pledged to back him “1,000 percent.
And McGovern never shied from the word “liberal,” even as other Democrats blanched at the label and Republicans used it as an epithet.” (NYT)
What follows are excerpts from McGovern’s 1972 acceptance speech and excerpts from the 2005 documentary narrated by Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!,” “One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern,” written, directed and produced by Stephen Vittoria.
1972 Democratic Presidential Nominee – U.S. Senator
Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida
July 14, 1972
So tonight I accept your nomination with a full and grateful heart.
This afternoon I crossed the wide Missouri to recommend a running mate of wide vision and deep compassion, Senator Tom Eagleton.
I’m proud to have him at my side, and I’m proud to have been introduced a moment ago by one of the most eloquent and courageous voices in this land Senator Ted Kennedy.
My nomination is all the more precious and that it is a gift of the most open political process in all of our political history.
It is the sweet harvest of the work of tens of thousands of tireless volunteers, young and old alike, funded by literally hundreds of thousands of small contributors in every part of this nation.
Those who lingered on the brink of despair only a short time ago have been brought into this campaign, heart, hand, head and soul, and I have been the beneficiary of the most remarkable political organization in the history of this country.
It is an organization that gives dramatic proof to the power of love and to a faith that can literally move mountains.
As Yeats put it, “Count where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say: My glory was I had such friends.”
This is the people’s nomination and next January we will restore the government to the people of this country.
I believe that American politics will never be quite the same again.
We are entering a new period of important and hopeful change in America, a period comparable to those eras that unleashed such remarkable ferment in the period of Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt.
Let the opposition collect their $10 million in secret money from the privileged few and let us find one million ordinary Americans who will contribute $25 each to this campaign, a Million Member Club with members who will not expect special favors for themselves but a better land for us all.
This is the time for truth, not falsehood. In a Democratic nation, no one likes to say that his inspiration came from secret arrangements by closed doors, but in the sense that is how my candidacy began. I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors.
I want those doors opened and I want that war closed. And I make these pledges above all others: the doors of government will be opened, and that war will be closed.
Truth is a habit of integrity, not a strategy of politics, and if we nurture the habit of truth in this campaign, we will continue to be truthful once we are in the White House.
Let us say to Americans, as Woodrow Wilson said in his first campaign of 1912, “Let me inside the government and I will tell you what is going on there.”
Wilson believed, and I believe, that the destiny of America is always safer in the hands of the people then in the conference rooms of any elite.
So let us give our — let us give your country the chance to elect a Government that will seek and speak the truth, for this is the time for the truth in the life of this country.
And this is also a time, not for death, but for life. In 1968 many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins.
I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day.
There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North.
And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong.
And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.
This is also the time to turn away from excessive preoccupation overseas to the rebuilding of our own nation. America must be restored to a proper role in the world. But we can do that only through the recovery of confidence in ourselves.
Now, in the months ahead I deeply covet the help of every Democrat, of every Republican, of every Independent who wants this country to be a great and good land that it can be.
Now, to anyone in this hall or beyond who doubts the ability of Democrats to join together in common cause, I say never underestimate the power of Richard Nixon to bring harmony to Democratic ranks. He is the unwitting unifier and the fundamental issue of this national campaign and all of us are going to help him redeem a pledge made ten years ago — that next year you won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.
We have had our fury and our frustrations in these past months and at this Convention, but frankly, I welcome the contrast with the smug and dull and empty event which will doubtless take place here in Miami next month.
We chose this struggle, we reformed our Party, and we let the people in. So we stand today not as a collection of backroom strategies, not as a tool of ITT or any other special interest. So let our opponents stand on the status quo while we seek to refresh the American spirit.
I believe that the greatest contribution America can now make to our fellow mortals is to heal our own great but very deeply troubled land. We must respond — we must respond to that ancient command: “Physician, heal thyself.”
Now, it is necessary in an age of nuclear power and hostile forces that we’ll be militarily strong. America must never become a second-rate nation. As one who has tasted the bitter fruits of our weakness before Pearl Harbor in 1941, I give you my pledge that if I become the President of the United States, America will keep its defenses alert and fully sufficient to meet any danger.
We will do that not only for ourselves, but for those who deserve and need the shield of our strength — our old allies in Europe and elsewhere, including the people of Israel who will always have our help to hold their Promised Land.
Yet I believe that every man and woman in this Convention Hall knows that for 30 years we have been so absorbed with fear and danger from abroad that we have permitted our own house to fall into disarray.
We must now show that peace and prosperity can exist side by side. Indeed, each now depends on the existence of the other. National strength includes the credibility of our system in the eyes of our own people as well as the credibility of our deterrent in the eyes of others abroad.
National security includes schools for our children as well as silos for our missiles.
It includes the health of our families as much as the size of our bombs, the safety of our streets, and the condition of our cities, and not just the engines of war.
If we some day choke on the pollution of our own air, there will be little consolation in leaving behind a dying continent ringed with steel.
So while protecting ourselves abroad, let us form a more perfect union here at home. And this is the time for that task.
We must also make this a time of justice and jobs for all our people. For more than three and half years we have tolerated stagnation and a rising level of joblessness, with more than five million of our best workers unemployed at this very moment. Surely, this is the most false and wasteful economics of all.
That job guarantee will and must depend on a reinvigorated private economy, freed at last from the uncertainties and burdens of war, but it is our firm commitment that whatever employment the private sector does not provide, the Federal government will either stimulate or provide itself.
Whatever it takes, this country is going back to work. America cannot exist with most of our people working and paying taxes to support too many others mired in a demeaning and hopeless welfare mess.
Therefore, we intend to begin by putting millions back to work and after that is done, we will assure to those unable to work an income fully adequate to a decent life.
Now beyond this, a program to put America back to work demands that work be properly rewarded. That means the end of a system of economic controls in which labor is depressed, but prices and corporate profit run sky-high.
It means a system of national health insurance so that a worker can afford decent health care for himself and his family.
It means real enforcement of the laws so that the drug racketeers are put behind bars and our streets are once again safe for our families.
And above all, above all, honest work must be rewarded by a fair and just tax system.
The tax system today does not reward hard work: it’s penalizes it. Inherited or invested wealth frequently multiplies itself while paying no taxes at all. But wages on the assembly line or in farming the land, these hard-earned dollars are taxed to the very last penny.
There is a depletion allowance for oil wells, but no depletion for the farmer who feeds us, or the worker who serves as all.
The administration tells us that we should not discuss tax reform and the election year. They would prefer to keep all discussion of the tax laws in closed rooms where the administration, its powerful friends, and their paid lobbyists, can turn every effort at reform into a new loophole for the rich and powerful.
But an election year is the people’s year to speak, and this year, the people are going to ensure that the tax system is changed so that work is rewarded and so that those who derive the highest benefits will pay their fair share rather than slipping through the loopholes at the expense of the rest of us.
So let us stand for justice and jobs and against special privilege.
And this is the time to stand for those things that are close to the American spirit. We are not content with things as they are. We reject the view of those who say, “America — love it or leave it. ” We reply, “Let us change it so we may love it the more.”
And this is the time. It is the time for this land to become again a witness to the world for what is just and noble in human affairs. It is time to live more with faith and less with fear, with an abiding confidence that can sweep away the strongest barriers between us and teach us that we are truly brothers and sisters.
So join with me in this campaign. Lend Senator Eagleton and me your strength and your support, and together we will call America home to the ideals that nourished us from the beginning.
From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America
From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.
From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick — come home, America.
Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.
Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land — from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters — this land was made for you and me.”
So let us close on this note: May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.
And now is the time to meet that challenge.
Good night, and Godspeed to you all.
Speaking on Democracy Now! in 2008, Senator McGovern described the impact of the reforms:
GEORGE McGOVERN: The ’72 convention, which was the first one to come under the new McGovern reforms, was pretty evenly balanced between men and women. You looked out over that convention floor. We also said that there should be some consideration given to age groups. Some of the biggest delegations to the ’68 convention didn’t have a single person 30 years of age or under, even though the transcendent issue of that time was the war in Vietnam, where everybody was under 30. So we corrected some serious imbalances in the way the delegations were put together.
CHIP BERLET: I remember standing on the floor of the convention as McGovern was being nominated and looking over at the Colorado delegation. And there’s, you know, young people and black people and all kinds of different folks in that delegation. It really was diverse. And everyone was crying. (John Foster “Chip” Berlet is an American investigative journalist and photojournalist activist specializing in the study of right-wing movements in the United States, particularly the religious right.)
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: I share with countless other Americans a profound sense that the untimely deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, and as well of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, have left a painful void of unfulfilled dreams that all of us must try to restore. It is for these purposes that I declare myself a candidate for the presidential nomination.\
SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: But the president of United States can make a difference. He can set the moral and political tone of this country. He can speak out against injustice. He can use the power and the influence of that office to lead us in a more constructive and humane direction.
JIM BOUTON: Probably the last unscripted convention in American political history. I don’t think anybody wanted to take a chance again at something so organic and natural and spontaneous. (James Alan “Jim” Bouton is a former American Major League Baseball pitcher. He is the author of the controversial baseball book Ball Four, which was a combination diary of his 1969 season and memoir of his years with the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, and Houston Astros.)
CHIP BERLET: There were a lot of people who were threatened by George McGovern. You had the rise of the neoconservative movement. These were the Democrats who supported the war and were Cold War liberals, and they wanted him stopped. And they were also horrified by the kind of social movements that students were involved in, and here was McGovern reaching out to dissident social movements.
JIM ABOUREZK: We were easily deceived by expert propagandists, which is what happened in ’72. Republicans are very good at getting people to vote against their own interest. Why would anybody with an income of $25,000 a year vote Republican? I don’t know. I just have no idea. And George McGovern had that same problem. (James George Abourezk is a former Democratic United States Representative and United States Senator, and was the first Arab-American to serve in the United States Senate. He represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1973 until 1979.)
J.C. SVEC: We didn’t take the ball and run with it. McGovern had the ball. He didn’t drop it. I think he threw it up there, tried to pass it along. And the class of ’72 fumbled. (As a producer, director and designer, J.C.’s independent films, short form videos, graphic designs and scripts have been honored with over eighty national and regional awards, including twelve prestigious Telly Awards.)
Sources: New York Times, Democracy Now, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/