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The Nation : Every Reputation is Redeemable for the U.S. Public--Except McGovern's

November 20, 1994|Steven D. Stark | Steven D. Stark is a commentator on National Public Radio and CNN

BOSTON — It is something of a tradition in this country to take our more contentious political figures and turn them into admired senior statesmen as they grow older. Thus, the once disdained Barry M. Goldwater--landslide loser in 1964--has been lionized in retirement, and even Richard M. Nixon made a comeback in public opinion in the years before his death.

Once the jeering stops, it seems Americans can find a nice word to say about anybody. Then again, there's George S. McGovern.

Twenty-two years after he lost 49 states to Nixon, McGovern is still something of a dirty word in American culture. In the past two weeks alone, Speaker of the House to-be Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has blamed the "McGovernick" legacy for everything from the nation's propensity for violence to its dearth of ethical values. Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's core philosophy, he charged, is a combination of "counterculture and McGovern"--though when Gingrich speaks, those two labels are redundant.

It does make some political sense to tie your opponent to someone who could carry only one state. And it's true that Bill Clinton did run Texas for McGovern--about as successfully as he managed his own health-care plan. The larger question is why such a charge resonates 22 years later.

You have to go back to Herbert Hoover to find a politician who remained so vilified that the opposition party could run against his name for decades after he left office. Yet, Hoover, at least, was President during the Depression; there was a record to attack. McGovern can hardly be blamed for implementing anything. All he did was lose overwhelmingly to our only President to resign in office.

This has come about because voters' concerns this year appear to be based not so much on economic fears but on their sense that our culture seems out of control--in the schools, the streets and on television. Conservatives like Gingrich or William J. Bennett, former secretary of education, have identified the root of all this evil in what they see as the permissive culture of the 1960s, which undermined traditional American values. What's happened is that McGovern--or, better yet, his followers--has become a rallying symbol of all the elites out there today that conservatives such as Gingrich blame for subverting their pre-1963 vision of America--the Great Society liberals, the press, Hollywood types, the Washington Establishment, liberal professors and, above all, those awful disciples of the counterculture.

There is, in fact, some truth to Gingrich's charges: Though its leader was a mild-mannered South Dakotan, McGovernism was an elite movement, staging a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party. That, after all, is why McGovern won only one state. His was an anti-Establishment campaign that often resembled a commune; it included Warren Beatty, his roving campaign sidekick Gary Hart, and enough longhairs on the 1972 convention floor to make many lunch-bucket Americans feel their Democratic Party had been stolen from them.

And no wonder: There's a story that when Gov. Frank Morrison of Nebraska introduced McGovern to an audience in a high-school gym, he intended to set the record straight about GOP smears that McGovern was for legalizing drugs. "They say George McGovern is for the legalization of marijuana, but I say--," he began, but he was drowned out by applause before he could finish the sentence. When he did, the audience went quiet.

But that was long ago, and most of Gingrich's characterizations about the effects of these elites today are exaggerated, if not false. The universities, the media and Hollywood are not liberal monoliths, if they ever were--which is why the conservative Rush Limbaugh and "Forrest Gump" are this year's sensations. There are no Great Society liberals left. (Maybe one--Ira Magaziner.) The Washington Establishment is an equal-opportunity employer, as many former Reagan and Bush aides will attest.

It is certainly true that many values of the counterculture have become mainstream: If Americans are not for "acid, amnesty and abortion"--the 1972 GOP mischaracterization of McGovern's views--they do tend to favor a right to abortion, while eschewing involvement in foreign wars. (Acid never caught on, but two out of three ain't bad.) In fact, many of the counterculture's other values--its stress on sexual freedom and personal liberation; its emphasis on the rights of women and minorities, and its distrust of authority--are now key parts of the mainstream culture. Which means Gingrich's quarrel is not so much with a McGovern or countercultural elite, as it is with the American people.

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