When I was eighteen, I experienced a period of temporary insanity.
I became a Democrat.
There were several stressors. My father, a conservative Republican who thought that Barry Goldwater was a few fries short of a Happy Meal and was impressed by Lyndon Johnson's career as Senate Majority Leader, switched sides in 1964. After backing Pennsylvania Gov. Bill Scranton for the Republican nomination, so did I.
And then, four years later, I was facing eligibility for the draft. I was in no danger (or so I thought) of actually being drafted (having been accepted at what was then Concordia Teachers College in River Forest at the time an institution for training teachers for the Missouri Synod's parochial schools, and thus classified not merely as a deferred college student, but as an exempted ministerial student for Selective Service purposes), the draft didn't exactly loom threateningly over my head.
But turning eighteen still made me think. Others of my age were going to fight an increasingly unpopular war- a war I supported, but had to admit that I knew less about than I should have. My support was based largely on uncritical acceptance of claims made by the government and by the media that we were fighting for democracy and freedom and to stop the spread of Communism. So I began a systematic study of the history of the conflict which convinced me- even cocooned as I was in a 4-D exemption- that the war was a strategic mistake in the struggle against the Red Menace, whose character our culture tended to badly misunderstand. Someone once said that the politicians are always fighting the last war, and it certainly seemed to me to be the case that those governing the United States thought they were fighting World War II. This was not a case of the Russian or Chinese army marching through Southeast Asia, or- contrary to what we were told- even of an imperialistic invasion of a sovereign nation- South Vietnam- by its evil neighbor to the North.
I learned that South Vietnam was an invented country carved after World War II out of what had sometimes historically been three countries and sometimes one, but never two. I learned that far from being the "imperfect democracy" I heard about on the news, South Vietnam was an essentially corrupt, totalitarian state which differed from the repressive North more in degree than in kind; that its elections were essentially shams, and that the price of opposition to the government in Saigon even on the part of anti-Communists was likely to be a jail sentence. Most importantly, I learned that the "domino theory-" the idea that if one nation in a region succumbed to Communism, the whole region was likely to fall in rapid succession like a row of dominoes- was really not supported by history, and was increasingly abandoned by the experts in favor of the "salami theory" (individual nations in a region being sliced off one by one through Russian and Chinese support of indigenous revolutions arising because of objectively intolerable conditions in individual countries). The way to fight this salami-slicing was to support reform and an improvement in the lives of their people, and to resort to military force only as a last resort- and only then when we had a viable alternative to the revolutionaries to offer.
The crowning touch was when I learned that the settlement reached at Geneva in 1954 called for a national plebiscite to decide whether Vietnam was to be a single country, or divided in half- and that President Eisenhower admitted in his autobiography that the plebiscite wasn't held because it was obvious that any fair vote would have resulted in a single, unified country under Ho Chi Minh.
Wrong war, I decided, at the wrong place and the wrong time. The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked for Gene McCarthy. I was a messenger for the McCarthy campaign during the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, stationed at the Pick-Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue (there was a phone repairman's strike at the time, and the campaign had to go low-tech in order to ensure communications between the hotels). I got a snootful- thankfully, no more- of tear gas, but saw the results of the excesses committed by Chicago's Finest first hand as my colleagues, one by one, came back from their assignments gasping for breath and often bleeding profusely from head wounds inflicted by police batons simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time- doing their legitimate jobs for one of the candidates for the nomination.
I spent much of my spare time in the next four years working for the various anti-Machine candidates put up by the anti-Daley movement that was born among local liberals after the convention. And in 1972, I was the 35th Ward canvass coordinator for the McGovern-Shriver campaign.
I'm a little embarrassed by that era of my life. I continue to think that Vietnam was a strategic mistake in the struggle against Communism, and I continue to regard George Stanley McGovern- for all his naivete- as one of the most essentially decent human beings ever to seek the presidency. But he was also hopelessly naive. I cringe to think that I actually not only voted for but worked for a candidate who said that he would crawl on his hands and knees to Hanoi for peace (even Barack Obama only disrespects his own country and his own office by bowing for foreign heads of state). In later years, I came to realize that McGovern's election would have been a disaster for America- and that in reality, stripped of all the macho rhetoric, Nixon/Kissinger position on Vietnam was closer to mine in practice than McGovern's was even then.
McGovern's campaign was a disaster. "I wanted to run for president in the worst way," he once remarked. "And I did." McGovern- whose profoundly decent instincts caused him to stand by his original running-mate, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, when demands were made that he drop Eagleton from the ticket for reasons which would be laughable today (he'd received electroshock therapy during an instance of depression years before) and left him looking spineless when the political reality of popular prejudice in an age less knowledgeable about depression than ours made him drop Eagleton in favor of Sarge Shriver, carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in the second-largest landslide defeat in history. Ironically, it was McGovern's candidacy that was the target of the Watergate burglary which ultimately brought down Richard Nixon. The Plumbers really needn't have bothered.
I continued to be a Democrat longer than I should have. Their professed commitment to improving the life of the poor and the plight of the oppressed continues to appeal to me, and I would be a Democrat still if the party's increasingly radical position on social issues hadn't confronted me with a crisis of conscience back in 1992. I found that I could no longer rationalize supporting candidates who favored a virtually unrestricted legal right to abortion. While Bill Clinton's foreign policy, to my matured eyes, was a great deal more responsible than that of his Democratic predecessors, I just couldn't continue to support people who thought that there were members of our species who were in essence "life unworthy of life" appointing member after member to the Supreme Court to sustain and extend the moral abomination that is Roe v. Wade.
I began the second Republican era of my life. Today, with both parties so radical, ideologically rigid, and generally irresponsible, I'm a registered Independent. And as I said, I'm still embarrassed to have supported the candidacy of George McGovern.
But only because of his policies. I wish the candidates of both political parties were as good- hearted as George McGovern, and as decent of instinct. In coordination with former Republican senator and presidential nominee Bob Dole, McGovern spent most of his post-political life fighting for ways to get more food to more hungry people. Few men have done as much along those lines as those two good men; God knows we need more like them, whichever side of the political aisle they happen to be on.. As Pope Paul VI once said to McGovern, while the latter was director of the Food for Peace Program, "When Christ asks you whether you've fed the hungry, you can honestly say, 'I have.'"
George McGovern died early this morning in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at the age of 90. I am only one of a multitude of people who honor his memory despite a profound disagreement with his politics.
He would have made a terrible president. But he was a great man.