George McGovern in 2009, autographing a book he wrote on Abraham Lincoln. Credit: Mary Hodder/Flickr
Once upon a time, both political parties in America contained liberals, moderates and conservatives.
Two western senators, Barry Goldwater from Arizona and George McGovern from South Dakota, helped change that. Goldwater, when he challenged the moderate, moneyed interests loyal to Nelson Rockefeller; and McGovern, when his coalition of anti-war, civil rights, left-leaning activists swept aside Big Labor, Big Party Bosses and establishment senators like Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson.
Of course, both men were crushed at the ballot booth, Goldwater losing 44 states in 1964, and McGovern, 49 in ‘72. But the foundation of Goldwater’s campaign became the ground floor of the Reagan Revolution and many future leaders in the Democratic Party got their start in national politics during the McGovern insurrection. Politicians like Gary Hart and Bill and Hillary Clinton warmly remember the World War II hero (something he played down in ‘72 to avoid offending the party base), who died over the weekend at age 90.
I was playing with my G.I. Joe during the Goldwater debacle and riding my Schwinn Varsity during the McGovern meltdown, and didn’t pay much attention to politics back then. But over the years I’ve come to admire both men for their courage, perseverance and integrity. You wanna take on The Man? Try upending an entire political party.
But beyond his role in party politics, McGovern did something 20 years ago that I can’t envision any major political figure in either party doing today: He admitted he was wrong about something when he had nothing to gain from doing so.
Twenty-five years ago, McGovern invested his proceeds from the lecture circuit in a cozy Connecticut hotel and restaurant called the Stratford Inn. It went broke in less than four years. He could have chalked it up to a bad New England economy or just bad luck and jumped back into the lecture circuit. Instead he reflected at length on what went wrong and wrote a remarkable op-ed saying that he had been wrong about the private sector during his many years in politics.
“A Politician’s Dream is a Businessman’s Nightmare” ran in the Wall Street Journal in June, 1992. He told the Stratford story in straightforward detail: the maddening multitude of rules and regulations from the feds, the state and local governments, the climbing cost of health insurance for business owners and the need for tort reform. “Today, despite bankruptcy, we are still dealing with litigation from individuals who fell in or near our restaurant," he wrote. "And while the business owner may prevail in the end, the endless exposure to frivolous claims and high legal fees is frightening.”
The one time champion of federal regulation also wanted regulatory reform. “One-size-fits-all rules for business ignore the reality of the market place. And setting thresholds for regulatory guidelines at artificial levels – e.g., 50 employees or more, $500,000 in sales – takes no account of other realities, such as profit margins, labor intensive vs. capital intensive businesses and local market economics.”
His summation was remarkably candid: “I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.”
There are two reactions to this, the first political: Can you believe the man Democrats trusted to lead the national economy had no idea what it takes to run a small business? Déjà vu. Many are saying the same thing today.
The second reaction is to admire McGovern’s motive for writing it. It obviously didn’t enhance his reputation as a businessman. He went on record because he knew it would help the country. At an age when most politicians are writing memoirs to erase any stains from their public profile, McGovern was confessing a glaring blind spot that had kept him from being a better senator.
Four years ago I saw him at a reception following Bill Buckley’s funeral, and told him how much I admired him for writing that piece. The old senator, looking regal in his charcoal pinstriped suit and tortoise shell glasses, smiled and reflected for a few minutes on Stratford. Eventually we talked politics, where he fondly remembered his years with “Maggie” – Warren Magnuson, who served with him in the senate for 18 years. His relationship with Scoop Jackson was more complicated. They had battled over the nomination McGovern eventually won in ’72.
Many years ago, Washingtonian magazine featured McGovern and Goldwater on the cover, battle scarred but smiling, each waving a small American flag. True patriots.
Harry Truman once said that a statesman “is just a politician who’s been dead 20 years.” Sometimes we recognize statesmen when they’re still walking. George McGovern was one of them.