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The Prairie Populist: George McGovern 

Late senator's wisdom sorely needed at debate

"I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."

Believe it or not, that line was delivered, day after day, by a major American political party's candidate for president — the late Democratic U.S. Sen. George McGovern, in 1972. That phrase ran through my mind as I made my way to Park Road Books in 1996, where McGovern was promoting his book about his daughter Terry's fatal battle with alcoholism. McGovern was a genuine war hero who won the Distinguished Flying Cross as a bomber pilot in World War II. As he put it later, he learned to hate war by waging it. He was also, to me and many others, a political hero. As a young man, I had campaigned for McGovern in his ill-fated crusade against Richard Nixon, and I was delighted to finally meet him.

The same quote ran through my head again last week, on the day McGovern died at age 90, and the next day during the presidential debate, where his views on world affairs were desperately needed but nowhere in sight. It was terribly fitting that those two things happened in the same week. President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney used the word "peace" repeatedly, but not once during the debate did either man veer from the militaristic foreign policy framework devised by Cheney and Bush in the wake of 9/11. As Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast wrote, it was George W. Bush who won last week's debate. "The Bush administration essentially defined American foreign policy as American military policy," wrote Beinart, noting that the Bushies dismissed President Bill Clinton's emphasis on international economics in favor of what amounts to constant warfare. It was obvious during the debate that military answers to nearly every foreign policy problem are still the order of the day to many supposed leaders in delusional D.C.

Coming right after McGovern's death, the debate was an awful reminder to all of us who have longed for, and fought for, a less militaristic American approach to world affairs, of how much was lost in Nixon's huge 1972 victory. Nixon won all but one state, and within a month of Election Day, he began his now-infamous massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam, which continued unabated, even through Christmas. That bit of grotesquerie left American liberals more distressed and downhearted than at any time I can remember, with the possible exception of the day after Bush's re-election in 2004.

Since 1972, American soldiers have died needlessly in one ill-conceived military adventure after another — Grenada, Lebanon, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, you name it — as if soldiers were as dispensable as plastic spoons. And as if it's America's natural right to be the lawmakers and police force of the world. Obama and Romney, with a few minor differences, have drunk the "America Rules The World" Kool-Aid. They both gave full-throated support to the underlying notion of sending in American troops or bombers or drones or God knows what to whatever spot in the world is currently making it harder for us to keep up our international empire. At one time, that same underlying assumption was a matter of fierce debate in the U.S. It ought to be again. I suggest starting off a debate with the above quote from McGovern.

The night I met McGovern in 1996, only five or six other people showed up at Park Road Books to see the man Nixon had called "a prick" who would "say any goddamn thing that came into his head" (pot, meet kettle). It was quite a comedown from the glory days in spring and summer of '72, when McGovern's insurgent grassroots campaign caught fire and led him to the nomination. The campaign's post-convention collapse — the result of poor decisions by an exhausted staff and the Democratic establishment's withholding of a normal level of support for the party's nominee — sucked the air out of what had, until then, been a progressive's joy ride. (For a more detailed look at that campaign, check out Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 and the documentary One Bright Shining Moment: the Forgotten Summer of George McGovern.)

Remembering that campaign, and counting the few McGovern fans at the bookstore, I thought, God, this is going to be one melancholy event. But I was wrong. McGovern was still McGovern — plainspoken, honest, decent and funny. When I told him I had worked for his election to the White House, he smiled and replied, "Boy, we knocked 'em dead, didn't we?" The bookstore gathering turned into a warm, amiable chat among old warriors, so to speak, and reignited my admiration for the South Dakotan "prairie populist." Obama and Romney could have used a bit of his wisdom last week. Truth be told, the whole country could.

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