Four Notes on George McGovern

During Senator George McGovern’s 1972 presidential race, just out of college and back in my hometown of Los Angeles, I worked at the campaign’s Fairfax Avenue office, which was in the epicenter of L.A.’s Jewish community. Someone there (I don’t remember who) got the idea to print up a leaflet that proclaimed, in bold letters, “Nixon is Treyf”—treyf being the Yiddish word for not kosher, filthy, you shouldn’t eat it. The leaflet then went on to list reasons why President Nixon wasn’t good for the Jews. (We didn’t know at the time that Nixon had ordered a purge of Jewish economists from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or that would have headed the list.)

Fast-forward 18 months to the Watergate hearings. As the hearings kept turning up crime after crime committed by Nixon’s re-election campaign, Republicans were desperate to uncover at least one dirty trick committed by the McGovern effort. The best they could do was introduce the “Nixon is Treyf” leaflet into evidence, and call the former director of the Fairfax office to face a barrage of GOP questioners who wanted to know how the campaign could have printed and distributed such a scurrilous attack. The ex-director apologized for his lack of judgment, and that ended it. Except that, by the time the full Watergate story came out, it was clear that Nixon was as treyf as treyf could be.

Second note: In December of 1980, I was visiting Washington and driving my rental car up Connecticut Avenue. Stopped at a red light, I saw George McGovern, all by himself, coming down the sidewalk with a huge smile on his face; he was positively beaming. What the hell was he smiling about? I wondered. He had just lost his Senate seat one month before in the Reagan landslide. Then it hit me: Winter was upon us, and he didn’t have to shlep around South Dakota anymore, as he would if he’d been re-elected. Defeat had few consolations, but less time spent freezing in a sub-Arctic state was surely one of them.

Third note: Obituaries of McGovern have noted that he was the only Democratic presidential nominee of modern times not to get the AFL-CIO’s endorsement. More precisely, labor split on whether to endorse him. Uber-hawk George Meany, the AFL-CIO president who not only supported the Vietnam War but reviled the peaceniks and all the new-politics crowd (women, non-machine blacks, college students) who rallied to McGovern’s cause, never even considered the idea of endorsing McGovern. But nine major unions, including the UAW, the Communications Workers, and AFSCME, did support him, foreshadowing the growing foreign policy (and other) divisions in labor that eventually (23 years later) led to the ouster of Meany’s chosen successor, Lane Kirkland, as AFL-CIO president and his replacement by SEIU’s John Sweeney.

Fourth note: George McGovern was not just a staunch liberal, but also the most decent human being to be a presidential nominee in the past four decades. That obviously was no guarantor of victory or even judgment, but it certainly guarantees that those of us who remember him do so with great fondness.

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