Lest you be unduly impressed that I should be receiving a letter from George McGovern, I must quickly acknowledge that it was only a mass mailing encouraging folks to give money to Democratic and social justice causes.
I can remember a time when I thought it would be cool to be wanted only for my money. Now the worst has happened--I have no money but there are computers out there that think I do, and those computers are connected to devices that call me every day, send me emails every day, and mail me letters every day. I don't think he licked the stamp, but the letter from McGovern was of that type.
I am willing to be forgiving of George, however, because there was a time when he embodied things I deeply believed and he gave me hope that a peaceful world was within view. The letter in my mailbox made me mostly sad, awash as we are in perhaps the worst election tactics in many years, arguably ever. It does not seem that we have come much closer to those dreams we dared dream.
For those reading this who don't know much about the election of 1972, this Wikipedia link is a pretty good overview. What follows here is a brief summary of what it was all about, followed by a brief summary of why I care and why the envelope in my mailbox was a kind of postal epiphany for me.
Why Everyone Should Care: The election of 1972 must be traced to Southeast Asia where communist incursions in the 1950's began to make it a battleground for America's Cold War foreign policy to stop the spread of communism around the world. By the 1960's American escalation of an unwinnable guerilla war in Vietnam was sapping the country's resources, killed over 58,000 U.S. soldiers, and left the country rioting in the streets. The incumbent president, Richard M. Nixon, had campaigned in 1968 with the pledge that he had a secret plan to end the war.
Four years later, with no reasonable plan in view, Senator George McGovern, a soft-spoken history professor from South Dakota, took advantage of new populist rules forged during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, and an enthusiastic coalition of college students, traditional liberals, and ethnic minorities, to capture the nomination. His election campaign was plagued with missteps, lack of enthusiasm on the part of the traditional Democratic base, and a well-oiled Nixon reelection effort that managed to dispel allegations of ethical misconduct. Two years later that would bring Nixon down in the swirl of scandals usually collected under the term "Watergate."
But it was too late for McGovern. He was thumped with the worst loss in American history, winning only the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. We all should care, even today, why that happened.
Why I Still Care: In 1968 I cast my first vote for president of the United States, having become a naturalized U.S. citizen just three years before. I was a student in a small sectarian college in southern Iowa, not particularly sophisticated in politics or history, and an opponent of the war to the extent one can oppose war in small colleges in southern Iowa. I had thought it through and voted for Richard Nixon and his secret plan to win the war in Vietnam.
I had to wait four years to do penance but then, married and in seminary, I engaged for the first time in grass roots American politics. We met in small groups, organizing to take over the caucuses used by local politicians to control the presidential nominating process. We bushwhacked our caucus by flooding it with new activists and taking control from the establishment politicos for whom this gathering had always been perfunctory. We swarmed Kansas City's Union Station late into the evening when McGovern's whistle stop campaign train stopped for a brief rally. We handed out brochures, made phone calls, talked to our friends and family, and felt connected to the democratic process. It was exhilarating.
Then, on the night of November 7, 1972, we watched our television screens with dismay as our youthful dreams were swept away in an avalanche of votes across the nation. We all should care, even today, why that happened.
When I opened my mailbox this past week to find only George McGovern's request for funds I was struck by how it seemed like a metaphor for our time. The political process that seemed so inclusive and invigorating is now overcome with deserving cynicism. The belief that our voice and votes matter is riddled with scorn by those who now, aided by a shameful Supreme Court decision, use their mind-boggling wealth to buy elections from right under our feet. Many people understandably ask, "What's the point?". And now, refusing to learn the lessons of history, we wage unjustified, unfunded, and unbridled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are a host of things--ethnicity, poverty, women's issues, misguided budget priorities, among others--that still feel burdensome all these years later.
I'm glad George McGovern dropped me a note. It reminded me of when I was young and dreaming big dreams. In retrospect, despite that thrashing at the polls, we have seen that he was mostly right back in 1972. Knowing that helps.
But it's not enough.