Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern, RIP

The 1972 presidential election is the first I remember clearly, although I do have one flash of '68, when I was pushed forward from a crowd out at our little city's "international" (a couple of flights a week to Toronto) airport to shake hands with the gentleman above.  Father Muscato was a bigwig Republican, and I suppose I was a good photo op, me in my little sailor suit.  I only wish I had the photo, even though I don't suppose Pat was there, in her good Republican cloth coat and Librium daze.

By '72, even the parents' support for Nixon had frayed, and I've long suspected that it was that year that my mother first voted Democratic (she didn't admit it until '84, precipitating a crisis chez nous that didn't fully heal until '92, when even Father Muscato finally, grudgingly switched sides).  I'm quite sure that this remarkable promotional piece had little influence on her (we were definitely more in the Rockwell than the Warhol camp in those days), but isn't it a marvelous little bit of surreality?  I'm trying to imagine a parallel today, and the closest I can think of is an Obama poster by Jeff Koons, but even that wouldn't be nearly as out of left field as the idea of Andy Warhol getting political, or even knowing what politics is.

But it was clearly the season for things coming out of left field, not least the candidate himself.  It's telling that even here, it's George McGovern's opponent who features, for McGovern was always as much about his issues and his ideas as his own public persona.  He was an enormously polarizing figure, not so much for his own, essentially irreproachable self (World War II pilot, dutiful public servant, thoughtful, sobersided...) as for the uncomfortable truths he put in front of the public:  the war in Vietnam was unwinnable and wrong; the militarization of America was unsustainable; there had to be a solution to the gnawing growth of poverty.  The wide margin by which he lost - even against the president who within two years would be forced from office, in part as a result of election-related dirty tricks directed against the McGovern campaign - meant that never again (so far, at least) would an outright progressive be a serious American presidential candidate (today's liberals look an awful lot like Eisenhower Republicans, and our current "socialist" president is at best a centrist next to '70s Democrats).

McGovern is best remembered for one loss.  But his life, when you look at the 90-year sweep of it, is anything but a loser's game.  He served his country and lived the ideals he believed in, fighting hunger and opposing war until the end.  He was a far from perfect person who never pretended anything else, and in the maelstrom of American political life, that in itself is something to admire.  His long journey is over, and we are the poorer for his death.  How many people said the same for Warhol's unappealing subject?

Who, by the way, had a clammy handshake and breath bad enough to shake the composure of even a five-year-old.  Were that photo to survive, I have a feeling it would not be flattering to either of us.

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