In 1972, I was a pudgy, nerdy, cat-eye-glasses wearing 5th Grader, devoted to voracious book reading and everything rock n' roll. My family had moved from a small town in Wisconsin to a minuscule town in Wisconsin -- something I was deeply unhappy about -- and my dad was often away on business to the UK, sometimes for months. My mom had to go back to work, and I was often alone. It was a tough time.
My homeroom teacher that year was a dashing, intelligent, no-nonsense man who had a reputation for being a tough grader and a liberal user of pointed sarcasm. I was both terrified and completely enthralled by him. Sarcasm and dust-dry humor were the gold standards in our house, so I could relate to this part of his style completely, while trying to avoid being the target of his barbs by being ready to answer any questions when called upon in class, instantly.
He was also an unabashed political liberal, something I had seen little of personally, as I came from a staunchly Republican home. 1972 was a presidential election year, so especially in the days leading up to the vote that's what everyone was talking about, and my teacher often engaged our little class of 10-to-12-year-olds on the issues of the day. He was adament that we read the paper, watch the news on TV, talk to all kinds of people, discuss things openly, and then decide what we thought from all the information we gathered -- not necessarily what our friends or family believed, but what made sense to each one of us, aligning that information and synthesizing it with our developing values. He made it clear that he didn't expect anyone to believe what he believed. Just falling in line with what anyone said, adult or not, was sheep behavior, he lectured us; be ready to explain why you think what you think, back up your opinions, stand up for your beliefs, on your own.
The candidates that year were Republican incumbent Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator George McGovern. I was well-familiar with politics already; I read the Milwaukee Journal every morning and watched the CBS Evening News every night, along with my parents, and had done so nearly all my short life. I had grown up seeing the Vietnam War, student protests, assassinations, and the Generation Gap on full display. I had heard my parents speak with such anger and disgust that anyone would protest the war or not support the President 100%; treasonous, they said, filthy Communists, all. With all of this swirling around me, it was easy to become overwhelmed and confused. So what did I think? What did I believe was right? Who should be the next President of the United States in 1972?
Despite my parents' championing him, I secretly never liked Nixon, although I was initially too little to understand why. Perhaps there is something to a child's intuition, I don't know, but I didn't trust the guy. He didn't seem sincere to me, and to a kid, playing by the rules and being fair is everything. When someone messes with the rules, the game is unraveling, and facts are adding up, I pay attention.
1972 George McGovern Presidential Election Ad
Everything George McGovern was saying resonated with me. He seemed to care far more about people, and especially younger people, than did Nixon. Wasn't that the job of the president, to take care of all the people in America, to stop sending them off to die in a war that seemed so useless, bloody, and long, to see that everyone here had some measure of dignity in their lives? To tell the truth to us, and to protect us from those who didn't? I believed that McGovern was a sincere person and that Nixon was not, and that facts were backing that up. On my own, quietly, I became a McGovern supporter.
Excerpts from his 1972 Democratic National Convention speech:
How very, very, very apropos to 2012, yes?...Let the opposition collect their $10 million in secret money from the privileged few and let us find one million ordinary Americans who will contribute $25 each to this campaign, a Million Member Club with members who will not expect special favors for themselves but a better land for us all.In the literature and music of our children we are told, to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. And for America, the time has come at last.This is the time for truth, not falsehood. In a Democratic nation, no one likes to say that his inspiration came from secret arrangements by closed doors, but in the sense that is how my candidacy began. I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors.I want those doors opened and I want that war closed. And I make these pledges above all others: the doors of government will be opened, and that war will be closed.Truth is a habit of integrity, not a strategy of politics, and if we nurture the habit of truth in this campaign, we will continue to be truthful once we are in the White House.Let us say to Americans, as Woodrow Wilson said in his first campaign of 1912, “Let me inside the government and I will tell you what is going on there.”Wilson believed, and I believe, that the destiny of America is always safer in the hands of the people then in the conference rooms of any elite.So let us give our – let us give your country the chance to elect a Government that will seek and speak the truth, for this is the time for the truth in the life of this country.And this is also a time, not for death, but for life. In 1968 many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins.I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day.There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North.And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong.And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.This is also the time to turn away from excessive preoccupation overseas to the rebuilding of our own nation. America must be restored to a proper role in the world. But we can do that only through the recovery of confidence in ourselves.......I believe that the greatest contribution America can now make to our fellow mortals is to heal our own great but very deeply troubled land. We must respond -- we must respond to that ancient command: “Physician, heal thyself.”Now, it is necessary in an age of nuclear power and hostile forces that we’ll be militarily strong. America must never become a second-rate nation. As one who has tasted the bitter fruits of our weakness before Pearl Harbor in 1941, I give you my pledge that if I become the President of the United States, America will keep its defenses alert and fully sufficient to meet any danger.We will do that not only for ourselves, but for those who deserve and need the shield of our strength -- our old allies in Europe and elsewhere, including the people of Israel who will always have our help to hold their Promised Land.Yet I believe that every man and woman in this Convention Hall knows that for 30 years we have been so absorbed with fear and danger from abroad that we have permitted our own house to fall into disarray.We must now show that peace and prosperity can exist side by side. Indeed, each now depends on the existence of the other. National strength includes the credibility of our system in the eyes of our own people as well as the credibility of our deterrent in the eyes of others abroad.National security includes schools for our children as well as silos for our missiles.It includes the health of our families as much as the size of our bombs, the safety of our streets, and the condition of our cities, and not just the engines of war.If we some day choke on the pollution of our own air, there will be little consolation in leaving behind a dying continent ringed with steel.So while protecting ourselves abroad, let us form a more perfect union here at home. And this is the time for that task.We must also make this a time of justice and jobs for all our people. For more than three and half years we have tolerated stagnation and a rising level of joblessness, with more than five million of our best workers unemployed at this very moment. Surely, this is the most false and wasteful economics of all......Whatever it takes, this country is going back to work. America cannot exist with most of our people working and paying taxes to support too many others mired in a demeaning and hopeless welfare mess.Therefore, we intend to begin by putting millions back to work and after that is done, we will assure to those unable to work an income fully adequate to a decent life.Now beyond this, a program to put America back to work demands that work be properly rewarded. That means the end of a system of economic controls in which labor is depressed, but prices and corporate profit run sky-high.It means a system of national health insurance so that a worker can afford decent health care for himself and his family.It means real enforcement of the laws so that the drug racketeers are put behind bars and our streets are once again safe for our families.And above all, above all, honest work must be rewarded by a fair and just tax system.The tax system today does not reward hard work: it’s penalizes it. Inherited or invested wealth frequently multiplies itself while paying no taxes at all. But wages on the assembly line or in farming the land, these hard – earned dollars are taxed to the very last penny.There is a depletion allowance for oil wells, but no depletion for the farmer who feeds us, or the worker who serves as all.The administration tells us that we should not discuss tax reform and the election year. They would prefer to keep all discussion of the tax laws in closed rooms where the administration, its powerful friends, and their paid lobbyists, can turn every effort at reform into a new loophole for the rich and powerful.But an election year is the people’s year to speak, and this year, the people are going to ensure that the tax system is changed so that work is rewarded and so that those who derive the highest benefits will pay their fair share rather than slipping through the loopholes at the expense of the rest of us.So let us stand for justice and jobs and against special privilege.And this is the time to stand for those things that are close to the American spirit. We are not content with things as they are. We reject the view of those who say, “America -- love it or leave it. “ We reply, ”Let us change it so we may love it the more.”And this is the time. It is the time for this land to become again a witness to the world for what is just and noble in human affairs. It is time to live more with faith and less with fear, with an abiding confidence that can sweep away the strongest barriers between us and teach us that we are truly brothers and sisters......From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, AmericaFrom military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick -- come home, America.Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land -- from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters -- this land was made for you and me.”
November 7, 1972, the voters went to the polls. McGovern lost to Nixon, in one of the most crushing election defeats witnessed.
November 8, 1972, I went to school, devastated and shamed that "my candidate" not only hadn't been elected, but had been so thoroughly trounced. What on earth had happened?? I couldn't understand it at all. Nixon was a fake! Didn't that matter to anyone at all?
As I sat at my desk, I watched as my teacher came into the classroom and sat at his desk. He looked bleary-eyed and sad, and I suspect I did as well. I was fully expecting him to go into a huge rant, but he didn't, and was uncharacteristically somber and quiet the rest of the day.
Later on at afternoon recess, I wasn't much in the mood to play, so I just leaned against the cold, rough yellow-brick wall of my school by the doors, waiting to hear that we could go back inside again. My teacher, bundled in a maroon parka on playground monitor duty, came and stood next to me. He said nothing. I said nothing. We just watched the kids running around, poufs of tiny white clouds coming from their mouths as they yelled out calls for football plays or sing-song chants.
The recess bell clanged, startling me because it was so loud. I turned to go inside, and I felt my teacher pat the top of my head. I looked up at him, and he gave me a small, crooked, sad little grin, something like,"sorry kid, maybe next time." I smiled back, sort of shocked but touched that someone saw and cared how I felt.
The real legacy of the 1972 election sorted out pretty quickly, with Nixon resigning from office two years later in a scandal our nation has never really recovered from. For me, I will remember it for George McGovern's plain-spoken and passionate commitment to ideals that are ones that I still hold dear, forty years later, and the inestimable value and bravery in thinking for yourself, and caring for all.
George McGovern died today, October 21, 2012, aged 90.