Tuesday, October 23, 2012
An American Hero: George McGovern, RIP
That Nixon was the conservative face of the era seems strange today in the post-Reagan political world, but that McGovern should have been its liberal face does not seem strange at all. In fact, McGovern defined modern liberalism and continues to do so, even though our memory of the man himself has receded into the mists of the political past.
I grew up in a family of conservative Democrats who were increasingly at odds with their party, and who mostly abandoned it on election day in November of 1972 to vote for Nixon (and who, ironically, would have voted for George Wallace if Wallace hadn't been shot before the California primary). They voted for the crook: it was important. None of them liked McGovern's politics, a dislike that overshadowed anything they felt about him as a man. His personality was lost in the distaste for his political positions.
But there were two things that later rehabilitated him in my mind, and brought me to an appreciation of him that has stayed with me ever since. The first was seeing him speak when I was in college. He co-taught a class at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the early 1980's. As part of that class he gave a lecture at Campbell Hall which my girlfriend (who was later to become my wife) and I went to see. The stereotypes that I had formed over the years were exploded when I saw a man who was incredibly intelligent, witty, and well-informed. This was not the political demon I had been raised to revile. We attended a number of lectures during my junior and senior years, and the three that stood out as truly outstanding were those by Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Jr., and George McGovern.
The second was a book I read about 5 years ago; it was a book that anyone who wants to make a judgment of George McGovern (the man) should read. I began reading The Wild Blue, by Steven Ambrose with no idea who it was about. Its subtitle, The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45, gave no hint that it concerned anyone other than a group of mostly unknown men. Ambrose tells the story of a number of B-24 pilots, but, in fact, much of the book is about McGovern.
I had no idea (and don't remember it ever being discussed during the '72 presidential campaign although I'm sure it must have come up) that George McGovern was a war hero.
The 35 missions that George McGovern flew were the maximum number a pilot could fly. After 35, you were done: They sent you home. Very few reached that number. When I read this, I thought back on his opposition to the Vietnam War, a position I strongly disagreed with as a very confident but fairly ignorant adolescent. It took on a completely different color. A man who flew 35 missions in a B-24 over Germany, I concluded, has won the right to say anything he wants to about war and he has earned the right to be listened to.
Ambrose's book doesn't stop at the events of the war, it tells the story of McGovern's courtship, marriage, and later life. Out of this story comes the picture of a fundamentally decent and religiously devout man who cared deeply for his family and his country.
I have said before that the problem with liberals is not that they're evil; the problem is that they are good, too good. They are so good they are a danger to themselves and others. As a true liberal, McGovern possessed the fault characteristic of his political tribe: he projected his goodness onto his fellow men and assumed that they would do what he would do under the same circumstances. Modern American liberalism (messianic, meliorist, and utopian) fundamentally rejects the Christian doctrine of original sin, and premises its policies on human beings that do not exist. Liberalism is a prelapsarian political philosophy for a postlapsarian world.
We forgive dead men for their badness. Can we forgive them for their goodness?
One story about McGovern from the book particularly struck me. On one of their missions, they had to turn back from their target without releasing their load of bombs. So McGovern turned the plane out into the Italian countryside to drop their load of explosives in order to allow them to land the plane. When they thought they had gotten to a safe place where they could release the bombs without harming anyone, McGovern gave the command to release them. But just as the last bomb had left the bomb bay, McGovern looked down and realized there was a farmhouse right in the path of the explosives. There was nothing he could do.
After washing up from the mission, a downcast McGovern entered the canteen, where he found one of his crew members laughing about the farmhouse they had just destroyed. I can't remember exactly what McGovern did, but as I recall that he grabbed the airman's collar and slugged him. If he didn't, he should have. In any case, the guy got the message, and everyone in the canteen saw the righteous indignation of a good man.
McGovern carried that guilt for years.
Then, decades later, McGovern and his wife visited Europe, where, in the midst of sightseeing, he appeared on a radio show where they discussed his service flying B-24s. He told the story of the farmhouse, and expressed his sorrow to no one in particular for a family he never intended to harm. A few minutes later, a man called in: It was the owner of the farmhouse the bombs had destroyed. The man explained that he and his family had heard the plane coming and had sought shelter in a nearby ditch. When the bombs hit and destroyed the house, the family was safe. They had survived. Not only was the man not angry, he said he hated the Nazis, and that, though his house was destroyed, he would gladly give it up in order to see the destruction of the Nazis and what they stood for.
George McGovern was not only a hero: He was one of the greatest men of this country's Greatest Generation. May he rest in peace.