Ben Heineman: The Gallant Idealism of George McGovern

Ben Heineman Jr. has held top positions in government, law, and business. He is the author of High Performance with High Integrity.

People now remember McGovern as going down in one of the biggest defeats in history, losing every state but Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia) to Richard Nixon. But many forget that he made a gallant effort to present Kennedy's idealism -- and anti-war and domestic reform policies -- to an increasingly tired, racially divided, and increasingly conservative electorate.

I arrived at the campaign post-Eagleton. When the Vice Presidential nominee revealed that he had suffered from depression and been treated with electroshock, McGovern first said he was "1000 percent" behind Eagleton and then, under pressure, dumped him from the ticket on August 1st. The election was probably decided definitively then. But young people, like me, had been inspired by John Kennedy, grown up during the civil rights revolution and anti-Vietnam war turbulence of the sixties, and were deeply attracted to Robert Kennedy in 1968. The steepness of the hill McGovern had to climb after the Eagleton fiasco didn't matter. I pocketed a handful of "McGovern-Eagleton" buttons (soon to be replaced ones emblazoned with "McGovern-Shriver"), and in my mid-twenties became a "senior" person on the issues staff.

At the national campaign headquarters (1972 K Street in Washington), the youth corps admired McGovern for his solid personality, his great record in WWII as a bomber pilot, his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, and his position as heir to Kennedy's legacy (because Teddy wouldn't run). But we knew that he lacked essential qualities of the Robert Kennedy of 1968: charisma and the ability to inspire. The much-discussed flat, "reedy" mid-Western accent would not excite crowds. We knew that his policies on both foreign and domestic matters were strong statements of sixties liberalism, lacking in balance that would appeal to the great middle of American politics, which had been chastened by events and was removed in time from the aura of the Kennedys. We could feel that he wasn't connecting with the electorate....

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