By Doug Draper
It is hard not to think about George McGovern, the former U.S. senator and presidential candidate who died at age 90 this October 21, without also giving a passing thought to Watergate.
Not that a politician as decent and honest as McGovern was, according to virtually everyone who spent more than a few moments with him, deserves to have his name indelibly linked to a scandal as vast and damaging to the country he served so courageously both in times of war (as a bomber pilot during the Second World War) and in times of fighting for peace as Watergate.
Yet there is no escaping the fact that the Watergate scandal began with a 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. when McGovern was running as the Democratic candidate for presidency against then Republican incumbent Richard Nixon, and ended with Nixon’s resignation – the first time in the then two century history of the United States that one of that country’s presidents was forced to resign from office.
As much as it looked like Nixon was going to defeat McGovern anyway, which he ultimately did in that 1972 election in a landslide, it turned out that Nixon’s White House had direct links in the Watergate break-in for reasons that may, according to McGovern and others, had something to do with terminally paranoid Nixon thinking that the Democratic National Committee might have had some information on his shenanigans in its files from his past
The Watergate break-in occurred in the months leading up to the 1972 election and the media – beginning with two young, dogged reporters from the Washington Post named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – were not able to make the link (hardly their fault, for their work remains heroic in all of this) until after the election. That left the American people living through another year and a half of agonizing revelations about sleazy, slimy political tricks and other attacks on the country’s democracy before Nixon was finally forced to hop on a helicopter as the only American president to date forced to resign from office.
During the U.S. Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, my parents and sister Nancy visited Washington, D.C. and attended a day or two of those historic hearings presided over by the late great Senator Sam Ervin. Those hearings led to the revelations of the infamous Watergate tapes, made in the Oval Office, that ultimately sunk Nixon.At any rate, it was during the few days my parents and sister spent in Washington, D.C. that they just happened to cross paths with George McGovern walking out of the Capital Building. He was kind enough to stop and talk to them for five or 10 minutes while my dad said to him that it looked like he got a bad deal. As he recalls, and as have so many other interviews with McGovern during that period have confirmed, he showed no sign of anger or bitterness, even though he lost the “brass ring” of politics in his country, which is the presidency.
Instead, he expressed worry for the country he has served and the political corruption that had seemed to carpet bomb the principles of democracy it has always claimed to stand for. This administration (the one under Nixon) was the most corrupt government he had experienced in his lifetime, this Second World War veteran, born in 1922, told my parents and sister.
Later and likely even then, McGovern would tell others how much he regretted that his failed presidential candidacy, built on a promise to immediately end the bloody war in Vietnam, also failed to save the lives of possibly thousands of young Americans and Vietnamese that went on dying for at least two more years in what most of us know now was an unnecessary war.
Years later, looking back on his 1972 presidential run during an interview with America’s National Public Radio, McGovern said; “I though the program I spelled out (during that election) was the truth. I thought it was the best for America and I’ll go to my grave believing America would be better off had I been elected.”
America very well would have been better had this decent advocate for peace and social justice been elected. One more time, God bless George McGovern and may the principles of democracy that advocate for the best for all live on.
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