George McGovern’s Book of Un-Reckoning

In his new book, George McGovern refuses to acknowledge his role in fusing a Democratic coalition of lifestyle liberals and the public costs this has entailed.

In 1959, George McGovern and his family posed for a picture on the lawn outside their brick home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The photograph showed the beaming U.S. Representative of South Dakota and his wife, Eleanor, hand in hand with the couple’s five children. Each child wore plaid, except for the one farthest from McGovern, his daughter Teresa, who wore a light-colored dress.

McGovern was married to Eleanor for 53 years (she died in January 2007) and kept his family intact. Reflecting on his family in a 1996 memoir, the original bleeding-heart liberal neither celebrated his role as a paterfamilias during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s nor derided the hypocrisy of home-wrecking, religious-right politicos. Instead, McGovern explored his role in Teresa’s death on December 12, 1994, when she was found in a snowdrift outside a bar in Madison, Wisconsin.

Early in the memoir, titled Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism, McGovern ruminated that if he were given a second chance with his daughter, he would parent her differently:

It is not easy to live with alcoholics, but it is far harder to live without them when death steals them away. I do not regret one single act of kindness, patience, or support that I gave to Terry. What I regret is her slowly developing death and the feeling that I could have done more to prevent it.

Nor can I escape regret over the ways in which my political career and personal ego demands deprived Terry and my other children of time, attention, direction—and fun with their father. This was a loss to me as much as to them. …

It is sad for me to read passages in her personal journal describing the hurt and sense of loss she experienced as her dad became more and more caught up in public concerns and his personal gratification while having less and less time for her private needs. My other children have, I suppose, made similar notations.

As the passage suggests, Terry was not a score-settling, ego-boosting account of the Great Man’s life. It was a bracing, honest, mature, and empathetic meditation on the private cost of a public life. Like Helios in Ovid’s tale of Phaeton or David in the Biblical tale of Absalom, McGovern reckoned with his paternal legacy to profound effect.

McGovern’s willingness to own up to faults and shortcomings is not his lone virtue, of course. He is physically courageous, having piloted thirty-five bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe; he is a humanitarian, having made significant strides to stamp out world hunger; he is an inexhaustible worker, as his long career shows; and he showed moral courage in speaking out about the Vietnam War, particularly as the Democratic Party’s 1972 presidential nominee. But McGovern’s contrition, it turns out, is limited to his personal sins.

In his new book, What It Means to Be a Democrat, McGovern does not own up to most or even some of his political faults. Yes, he acknowledges his paternity of the post-1968 Democratic Party: its coalition of non-white, female, young, professional-class, and college-town voters; its cultural liberals, including pro-choice feminists; and a key provision of its presidential nominating system, that its party delegates be diverse in terms of race, gender, and age. Yet he is like a husband who left his first wife, got remarried, and fails to reflect on the impact the divorce had on the kids from both marriages.

Take McGovern’s depiction of one of his progeny, the eponymous McGovern coalition, which replaced the party’s blue-collar, Roosevelt coalition (1932–1968), and which every Democratic presidential nominee since 1972 has relied on to varying degrees.

He boasts that this political alliance “took the stage at Grant Park the night Barack Obama captured the election to become our nation’s first African American president.” But those are the coalition’s highlights, not its lowlights or its overall mark. What does McGovern think about the record of the party’s presidential nominees in the last four decades?

As a trained historian, McGovern knows the record better than most. The party has four wins and six losses. (And another loss may be coming: as Nate Silver of the New York Times notes, President Obama is a slight underdog in his bid for re-election.) Compare the record to that of the New Deal coalition. Its presidential nominees had seven wins and three losses. While the gap between .400 and .700 doesn’t sound like much, it is the difference between the greatest pitchers in baseball history, such as Whitey Ford (.693) or Sandy Koufax (.655), and the most pedestrian.

Unlike baseball, politics is about more than winning: it’s about what you do when you win. When Democrats had their Roosevelt or New Deal coalition, its victorious presidential nominees enacted the legislation of the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society—a legacy that McGovern praises and accuses Republicans of seeking to undo. But since Democrats have had their McGovern coalition, its victorious presidential nominees have enacted … what exactly?

McGovern mentions most of the achievements, including family and medical leave (1993), the stimulus package (2009), and the health care law (2010). Yet whether those laws represent a proud legacy is unclear. Based on his frequent invocations of FDR’s and LBJ’s records, the reader can only guess. My guess is that McGovern wants it both ways: He pines for the achievements of the family that he divorced (the Roosevelt coalition) but can’t stop dreaming of the promise of his new family (the McGovern coalition). While his dilemma is understandable, his failure to reflect on the political consequences is neither mature nor wise.

Consider, too, McGovern’s depiction of another one of his progeny, the party’s activist-dominated presidential nominating system, which replaced the old boss system (1832–1968).

McGovern touts the party’s ideology as broadminded: “There are no official Democratic litmus tests … thank heavens!” This is misleading. After all, the party has an unofficial litmus test—the nominee must support abortion rights. Did McGovern forget that feminists prevented pro-life Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey, Sr., from addressing the 1992 Democratic convention about legal abortion, and continues to block pro-life Democrats from doing so?

In addition, McGovern claims that his reform commission (1969–1972) made the Democratic Party more inclusive: “It made sure that, going forward, our delegates included not just middle-aged white men but women, minorities, and young people—any of the millions of Americans who felt they were outsiders to the political decision-making process.” Certainly, McGovern’s reforms helped make the party’s presidential nominating system more democratic internally, as party voters and activists choose the Democratic nominee instead of party bosses.

Yet McGovern’s boast about the inclusiveness of the delegate selection rule is misleading, too. The McGovern commission did more than guarantee non-discrimination for the groups he mentioned. It guaranteed an informal quota to them: State parties were required to choose minorities, women, and young people as delegates “in reasonable relationship to their presence in the state.” This rule change was not made to add to the Democratic family, but rather to divorce the old family and make a new one, which it did. Leaders of the emerging feminist movement of the early 1970s used the gender quotas to align with the Democrats rather than Republicans, and the feminists’ agenda alienated and eventually drove out the party’s cultural conservatives.

Finally, consider McGovern’s depiction of cultural liberalism. He writes that abortion “is essentially a woman’s issue, since none of us men can ever be pregnant or have an abortion.” For someone whose bid for the party’s presidential nomination in 1972 commanded the support of feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, this statement is not surprising. But for someone whose own daughter had a horrible experience with abortion, it is not only surprising but also jarring.

In Terry, McGovern implies that when he and his wife learned that their 15-year-old girl was unexpectedly pregnant, they agreed with their family doctor’s decision that she should travel to Florida for an abortion. He describes the impact of the abortion this way:

An important part of Terry was devastated by the abortion. Her innocence, her fun-loving nature, and her self-confidence were all deeply shaken, first by an unpleasant sexual experience and then by a pregnancy that she feared and yet did not want to terminate. She later told me of these feelings and then added: ‘I thought that my special relationship with you was over.’ I never knowingly conveyed such an attitude toward Terry. I never expressed anger, nor did I ever hint at any concern about possible political consequences. But Terry felt shamed and reduced by this episode. In retrospect I wish I had gone out of my way to reassure her that for me she remained a ‘special person’ whom I both loved and admired despite her teenage mistakes.

McGovern’s dueling statements on abortion do not reflect well on his intellectual integrity. Publicly, he believes that pregnant women alone should decide whether or not to abort. Privately, he did not grant this power to his own daughter, who did not wish to abort.

Older and historically inclined readers might find it curious that this review has avoided discussing McGovern’s leadership of the opposition to the Vietnam War, the cause for which he is best known. I find it curious that McGovern does little more than broach the topic in What It Means to Be a Democrat. After all, McGovern’s main motive in fathering the modern Democratic Party was not personal glory or enrichment, but ideology: He wanted to end the war.

Almost everything McGovern did in the late 1960s and early 1970s was directed to that goal. His coalition was more likely to oppose the war strongly than Roosevelt’s coalition. Female, minority, and young delegates were more likely to oppose the war than their male, white, and older counterparts. Feminists were more likely to oppose the war than all but a few constituencies.

In short, George McGovern is one of the Democratic Party’s founding fathers—a man as important in party history as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt. Yet What It Means to Be a Democrat is much closer to being the equivalent of a long op-ed rather than Grant’s memoirs or a political analogue to Terry. For a man, now eighty-nine, who owned up so movingly to his familial legacy, it’s disappointing that he barely attempted to own up to his political ones.

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