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McGovern '72 – a cautionary tale

During the late 1960s I spent two years in the Peace Corps, stationed in Colombia, South America. When I returned, I found that the mood of the country had not appreciatively changed. But then, the ’60s were unlike anything I have ever experienced since. It was a transformative, cultural, political wave, perhaps best captured by an extraordinary moment that took place in the late summer of 1969 known as “Woodstock.” It was ostensibly a concert, situated on a stretching rural pasture in upper New York State. But it proved to be far more. It was an event, a gestalt of music, protest and strands of flowers in long hair, flashes of peace signs, an embrace of all that was hip and groovy, deeply anti-war and anti-establishment, the mind-altering thudding beat from the stage mixed with lyrical voices, asking that we simply give peace a chance. Some 400,000 showed up, many in converted school buses and VWs, painted in psychedelic colors.

The Woodstock through line was a consuming idealism. The word “alternative” was attached to a myriad of descriptors, most prominent being “lifestyle.”

But there was also the Vietnam War raging in Southeast Asia, taking lives and costing treasure, resulting in sustained political protest on college campuses and in the streets. Draft cards were burned (there was a draft), buttressed by an entrenched resistance to President Lyndon Johnson, the war’s initial architect, and then Richard Nixon.

Simultaneously, there was the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, carried forward by Martin Luther King Jr., demanding that Americans judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

A kaleidoscope of resistance and change swept into the early ’70s, made manifest politically in the candidacy of George McGovern who, in 1972, challenged Nixon, the incumbent Republican president.

McGovern left the Democratic convention with an ultra-liberal platform, with ending the Vietnam War as the tip of his policy spear. He called for the immediate withdrawal of all troops in Indochina and promised to grant amnesty to all those draft-age men who had gone to Canada rather than fight in Vietnam.

I recall, in the summer of ’72, going with my wife, Judi, and some friends to a sprawling mall in Concord, California, to hear McGovern speak. None of us had ever attended a political rally and immediately felt the energy and optimism from those gathered on a wide plaza, some holding up signs saying “STOP THE WAR.”

When McGovern arrived, everyone cheered and clapped. He seemed a rock star, standing on an elevated platform, waving. He began with an emphatic promise to end the war, considered immoral and disastrous. A roar of approval swept over and around us. He spoke about guaranteed income for the poor; health care as a right; and listed the highlights of the Democrats’ platform. McGovern was the candidate who would transform the nation, beginning with Vietnam, a war that dominated the thoughts of most young American men, myself included.

The 7th of November finally arrived. We voted, and then sat in front of our small television, waiting for the results to come in. And they did.

Of course, the Nixon campaign had labeled McGovern the candidate of surrender, amnesty, chaos and acid. But we, part of his youth base, shrugged; after all, Nixon was deep establishment and the system’s avatar. We had only vaguely heard of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington D.C. The connection to the Campaign to Re-elect the President (CREEP) was revealed much later.

To our astonishment, Nixon won in a landslide, McGovern winning only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. He was, apparently, judged too radical and too closely identified with the anti-war/Woodstock movement.

Nixon had promised “peace with honor” in Vietnam. It was only during his second term that we, along with the nation, learned that “honor” was not a word he took seriously.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.