Sad To See You Leaving 2012: Three Senate Greats

by George_East on January 21, 2013

George McGovern

This is a post by Jackie South which was originally posted on 31 December 2012 but which was lost from the site during our recent difficulties.  It is not clear whether the post is complete and unfortunately all comments on the post and any graphics originally posted have been lost.

George McGovern

George McGovern, who died in October, is most famous for one of the most overwhelming defeats in US presidential history, when he lost to Richard Nixon in 1972.  But that ignores his other significant political achievements  and the loss itself arguably laid the foundations for the Democrats’ return to the White House four years later. It was a terrible campaign: Nixon would probably have won handily whoever ran against him, given the divisions within the Democratic base over Vietnam. But McGovern was skewered by not only his leftwing position in the Democrats but by choosing Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate without doing the proper background checks. In the campaign, Eagleton’s history of depression, being hospitalised from mental exhaustion and electro-convulsive therapy to treat it came out.

McGovern first enthusiastically gave his support to Eagleton when this came out, but then dumped him when experts told him that Eagleton could be prone to similar episodes if he succeeded to the presidency.  It later came clear that Eagleton had been privately telling the press, before he was chosen as running mate, what a disastrous candidate he thought McGovern was. McGovern’s credibility as a decision-maker was crippled as a result.  To make matters worse, in the final week he was caught out whispering to a heckler to “kiss my ass”. McGovern went on to win only one state in the election, Massachusetts, along with Washington DC.

But whilst the campaign was an unmitigated electoral failure, it did two things that benefited the Democrats. First, it brought the anti-Vietnam generation inside the fold, healing many of the war wounds and meaning that the Democrats were in a stronger position to campaign in 1976.  But more importantly, Nixon’s paranoia about the election led to the Watergate break-in, which shifted the political landscape just enough to allow Carter’s narrow victory.

Despite all of this, McGovern had much to be personally proud of. He was a decorated war hero as a WWII airman and a celebrated academic before entering politics, becoming the executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party at a time when it scarcely existed in the state.  Less than four years later, he had got elected as Congressman in that normally Republican state.  He ran for the senate four years later, was defeated and became instead director of the new President Kennedy’s Food for Peace programme.  Two years later, he managed to be elected as Senator for the state in November 1962. If the Kennedy clan expected acquiescence from its newest ally in the Senate, it was mistaken. Early on, McGovern criticised the president’s policy towards Cuba as a “Castro fixation” and called for defence cuts. In September 1963, as America was getting more embroiled in Vietnam, he became the first senator to speak out against US involvement there. After a visit to South Vietnam in 1965 he became even more vocal in his opposition. He backed Bobby Kennedy’s run for president, and got drafted in to run in his place after Kennedy was assassinated. This set out the ground for his 1972 run for the job. McGovern was one of the clearest voices for the liberal left in the Senate.

Eventually, he fell to political gravity in 1980, swept away in Reagan’s landslide.  After a stint in academia (laced with increasingly hopeless attempts to become presidential candidate again) he returned to public life under Clinton in a role similar to the one Kennedy had given him: tackling world hunger. This culminated in him working with fellow presidential failure Bob Dole to create the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program (snappy title). McGovern was a great humanitarian, a great liberal and a great anti-war campaigner, if a terrible presidential candidate.

Arlen Specter

A week before McGovern’s death, Arlen Specter passed away. Specter was Senator for Pennsylvania, with a history of political centralism that took him from the Democrats to the Republicans and back again. He started off as a Democrat lawyer in Philadelphia, before being drafted into work on the Warren Commission to investigate JFK’s assassination whereArlen Specter
he came up with the (frequently discredited) Single Bullet Theory. Flushed with his success, he decided to run to become Philadelphia’s district attorney, but the Democratic party machine had other ideas.  So he switched parties and won the 1965 contest. He held the job for eight years before losing to the Democrats, and then tried to get one of the big state posts, eventually winning the Republican nomination for senator in 1980 and getting elected.

As Republicans go, Specter was pretty liberal, and more liberal than some Democrats. He sponsored legislation to promote equal opportunity in social housing and criticised his party for the impeachment of Clinton.  He criticised George W Bush’s stance on abortion and wiretapping. It made Specter popular in Pennsylvania with all but the most partisan supporters of either party. When I campaigned for John Kerry in Philly in 2004, work was done to secure the state for Kerry and to win seats in the House of Representatives, but the (correct) assumption was that Specter was unassailable. That changed as the Tea Party got organised after Obama’s victory. They clearly targeted Specter as being too liberal, and so Specter rejoined the Democrats in 2009. This should have been a great opportunity for the Democrats to hold the senate seat, but they blew it by supporting congressman Joe Sestak for the 2010 nomination.  As a result, Tea Partier (and chief Specter-hater) Pat Toomey won the senate seat and the Democrats lost Sestak’s district too. Specter died of the cancer he had been fighting since 2005, having become Pennsylvania’s longest ever serving Senator.

He was one of the last moderate Republicans in the Senate, who are now diminished to just Maine Senator Susan Collins.  Despite spending most of his political career in the wrong party he did more than many Democrats to advance the progressive cause.  He is said to have done more for his state than any other Pennsylvanian bar only Benjamin Franklin.  No wonder Obama honoured him at his death by ordering all government flags to be flown at half-mast.

Daniel Inouye

Whilst both McGovern and Specter had left the Senate by the time they had died, the longest-serving Senator, Daniel Inouye, had not.  Inouye is a giant in the history of the state of Hawaii, having represented it (first in the House and since 1963 as Senator) since it first became a state in 1959. As a Japanese American only 14 years after WWII ended, that was noDaniel Inouye mean feat. It helped that Inouye was a genuine war hero.  Serving in Italy, he was shot in the stomach but carried on fighting, readying himself to throw a handgrenade when the blast from a German rocketgrenade blew that arm off.  He managed to order his comrades clear, prise open his fingers holding the grenade with his good hand, and throw it to destroy the German bunker that was his target.  He then shot a final German before taking a wound to his leg and falling unconscious.  When he awoke, his first words were to order his men to their positions as “nobody called off the war“.

He served on both the Watergate Committee and the Iran-Contra hearings, being a vocal critic of how Oliver North and colleagues had behaved.  But most importantly, he was a constant non-white presence in the Senate, a body hardly renowned for its diversity.  It is a shame that Hawaii’s governor, Neil Abercrombie, decided to ignore his deathbed wish to continue that diversity: Abercrombie appointed his deputy Brian Schatz instead.

Inouye’s final word was “Aloha”: the Hawaiian word for peace, mercy and compassion.  Given his life, it is a sentiment he understood better than most.

*** Senators McGovern, Specter and Inouye, Rest In Peace.

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