Paul Greenberg

He had to have run the worst, most disorganized and demoralizing, indeed chaotic presidential campaign in recent history. It was a perfect, agonizing reflection of the jumbled times. A kind of microcosm of the Sixties as things fell apart in that mood-altering era -- before they congealed into the leisure-suited Seventies, when the utter mediocre could be delivered in flashy packaging. Think of that photograph of Richard Nixon posing awkwardly, as he did everything else, with Elvis Presley. That about sums up that strange time.


If poor George McGovern didn't head the worst presidential campaign of modern times, it's hard to think of anybody who even came close. Having sealed the Democratic nomination for president in one of the first national conventions whose make-up would be largely determined by quotas for race, sex, class and any other categories its "planners" could think of at the moment, the senator from South Dakota would accept his party's nomination for president in the middle of the night -- like any other shameful secret that had to be kept under wraps as long as possible. Which meant that most of the country would miss his acceptance speech. Which was typical of the man's timing.


Sen. McGovern's "victory" at his convention, along with how he had achieved it, and the muddled presidential campaign he waged afterward, would not only destabilize and dishearten his party but much of the country at a crucial time. He would end his bummer of a campaign with a different vice-presidential nominee than the one he'd started with. (Anybody outside Missouri still remember Tom Eagleton?)


What had begun as a question about his running mate's history of mental instability soon morphed into questions about Sen. Eagleton's credibility, and how candid he had been with the top of the ticket. It would take the presidential candidate the longest, most indecisive time and embarrassing contortions to free himself of that incubus. He seemed a man who wanted to do right in the worst possible way, and did. But not until he had put it off as long as he could.


Readers of a certain age may have their own worst memories of the Democratic presidential campaign of 1972, which was really more of an extended fiasco. The result of the whole, awful thing was the re-election of a president who didn't deserve re-election -- on the basis of his own character defects alone. His corrupt ways started to become undeniable even before the campaign ended with his landslide victory. (Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. --Mencken, H.L.) But what choice did the American people have between old corruption and zealous new incompetence?


Then the whole Nixon administration and gang -- president and top aides and attorney general and assorted fall guys and all -- would be swept away by the great scandal known by its catch-all title, Watergate. In short, a shame and disaster everywhere you looked. In the meantime, a long and bloody war was being lost and the government of the United States reduced to a painful tragicomedy.


Yet as time unfolded, and perspective returned, maybe even a measure of wisdom, George McGovern came to be seen as an avuncular sort, a good man out of his depth in presidential politics, but a respected, and now experienced, voice.


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As he grew into an elder statesman, he came across as someone who had been taught some valuable lessons by his earlier, ideological passions and the misjudgments they had led him into. Like so many of us. Lest we forget, he'd started out as a minister's son, and had been a college history teacher and decorated bomber pilot (DFC) in the Second World Calamity. There was much more to George McGovern than one failed presidential campaign.


Having begun as champion of the old isolationist temptation in foreign affairs and an advocate of an ever-expanding welfare state at home, he would wind up as a poster boy for free enterprise and freedom in general.


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It seems he'd gone into a business of his own (a resort hotel) after ending his political career by popular demand. And learned quite a bit from the experience. For there's nothing like running a business to give a man a sense of reality. Which may be something to keep in mind as this election season draws to a merciful close. To quote just one of Mr. McGovern's latter-day observations:


"American institutions ... are in sad shape. Health care and education are so weak that a steady stream of disjointed reforms, a sure sign of desperation, almost seems like regular management. ... What is missing is human ingenuity and judgment. Up and down the levels of responsibility 'can do' has been replaced by 'can't do.' Failure has become the status quo ... because legal fear and bureaucracy have paralyzed decisions of teachers and doctors. ... To rejuvenate our common institutions, we must fix America's legal system." And so much else. A system and spirit that has been trussed and bound for so long needs to be freed, its genius allowed to flourish again.


The end of the story: George McGovern was a sensible man whose natural virtues, bred and sustained by his prairie past, had just been obscured for a time. On his death at 90 the other day, his country had long ago learned to value the man for his better qualities, including a time-honed wisdom.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.