The McGovern Landslide
The gathering last weekend to celebrate George McGovern's 85th birthday was more than a salute to a respected elder for his decades of work as a public official and a private citizen to end hunger in the world.
Bob Dole, who has joined with him in that cause since they both were senators, spoke warmly of a friendship that crossed party lines and bridged years of disagreement on other issues. But most of the celebrants were there for another reason. They were veterans of McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, reunited after 35 years to mark one of the great lost causes of American politics.
McGovern was swamped by Richard Nixon in that race, carrying only Massachusetts and the District. As he noted ruefully in his reminiscences Saturday, he decided to take a nap while awaiting the returns, leaving the instruction to "wake me when we know the outcome. It turned out to be a very short nap."
But that campaign has had long-term consequences. As evidenced by the turnout for this reunion, McGovern's race attracted and trained a generation of young people who are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party today.
Youthful rebels then, gray-haired now, they still embody the two forces that define the Democratic Party -- an insistence on openness and reform and a commitment to peace. As Bill Clinton, one of thousands who got his first national experience as a McGovern volunteer, put it in his message to the gathering, they are all "McGovern's heirs."
Gary Hart, who was McGovern's campaign manager, made the bold statement that McGovern had "saved the Democratic Party" by forcing open the doors of a closed system and allowing all those outsiders -- the anti-Vietnam War amateurs -- to come in.
At the time, it certainly didn't look like salvation to party leaders, who saw the Democrats losing seat after seat in the McGovern debacle. But the energy and talent McGovern enlisted have proved to be the party's salvation. Without the reforms McGovern forced onto a reluctant Democratic establishment -- including guaranteed representation for women and minorities in the convention hall -- it is impossible to imagine that this year, the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination would be Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Though no one at this mostly partisan Democratic gathering noted the point, the parallel to the McGovern experience on the Republican side can be found in Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. Goldwater was a landslide loser to Lyndon Johnson, but he, too, brought a whole set of talented newcomers into national politics, among them Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Unsuccessful campaigns can have that long-term benefit for their party, but only if the losing candidate identifies himself with much larger causes. For McGovern, the causes were peace abroad and reform of the Democratic Party at home. For Goldwater, it was conservatism in its contemporary definition -- low taxes, strong defense and skepticism about government.
It was the idealism of their campaigns -- and their willingness to defy the pollsters and the political odds -- that endeared them to their young followers. And their vindication came with the successes those followers achieved.
There's a lesson in this for those running for president today. There is more than one way to measure a successful campaign. Pragmatism -- setting positions to suit the current political winds -- can yield short-term victories. But sticking to principle can build a legacy for a generation.
That may be consolation for John McCain, who is the most stubbornly principled person in the Republican field. He is being punished now for saying what he believes about Iraq and immigration, among other things. But the examples of Goldwater and McGovern tell us that battle-tested veterans who take the abuse and don't abandon their beliefs can inspire a movement of enduring importance.
The day after Lyndon B. Johnson became president in 1963, one of his close friends, lawyer James H. Rowe Jr., told me, "I don't know what kind of president Lyndon will make, but Lady Bird will be the best first lady ever." He was right.
She not only provided the steady support her temperamental husband needed to survive five stressful years of huge accomplishments and terrible failures, but she left a more beautiful, more caring country as her permanent legacy. Her 94 years were truly a gift to this nation.