Sunday, August 2, 2015

My First Vote For President

The year was 1972, and it was not a great year, as years go.  Vietnam was still percolating, even if the boil had gone down a little.  The “Generation Gap” was in full effect.  Politics was already a zoo, and new things, bad things, were waiting in the wings. 

That was the year in which I cast my first vote for president.  I usually say that I have been a “lifelong Democrat,” but I didn’t feel it very strongly in 1972.  The war, LBJ’s style of leadership, and Hubert Humphrey’s goofy old-school phony-Liberal presence had done nothing to endear me to the party.  I did like one of the Democrats in the primaries though.  George McGovern was a familiar name.  He was obviously a nice guy, and I liked his positions on most things.  At least I liked them to the small degree that I was able to pay attention to politics in those days.  I was generally apathetic.  But I liked McGovern for some reason.  He seemed to be a guy that I could vote for.

The Democratic primaries were a tough slog in which a lot of dubious practices were employed.  The politics of personal character assassination were there.  Humphrey came up with a slogan for McGovern:  “Amnesty, Abortion and Acid.”  That was even before Nixon got a crack at him.  The catch-phrase stuck throughout the campaign. 

With Humphrey, Muskie and George Wallace (!!!) out of the way, it was McGovern vs. Nixon in November.  For some reason, McGovern chose not to mention his service in World War II.  It might have been modesty, or a general feeling that it had nothing to do with anything, but now it seems quaint for him to leave it out.  After all, his service had been a spectacular, heroic success.

McGovern served as a pilot for the B-24 Liberator, the biggest bomber in use at the time (1944) and famously the most difficult to fly.  Early models had no hydraulics, so all of the controls were simple cable arrangements.  This required almost super-human strength in controlling the aircraft.  The yoke had to be controlled with only the left hand too, because the pilot’s right hand was busy making small adjustments to the engine controls.  The missions lasted seven or eight hours, and they were harrowing affairs, what with the flak and the German fighters and all.  McGovern completed thirty-five missions.

Not only flew them, but flew them with great élan and distinction.  He made emergency landings on several occasions that were credited with saving the lives of the crew.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Oak Leaves.  They didn’t throw those things around, you had to really work for them. 

Now I believe that McGovern was one of those guys who would say, “I just did my part,” or “we all did our parts.”  That’s not true though.  A comparison to Nixon’s service would have been apt.

Richard Nixon’s service was admirable, but there was nothing much to recommend it as a saga.  Nixon was in the Navy.  The only creditable thing that he did was request sea duty, although they didn’t really give it to him.  They sent him to the Pacific, but he was assigned to island facilities well back from the point of the spear.  He was made the officer in charge of Combat Air Transport Command, South Pacific, which is some kind of travel agent position, and he seems to have done a good job.  He got a Letter of Commendation.  Still, the comparison between Nixon and McGovern is one-sided. 

People knew about Nixon’s service, because he’d never been shy about mentioning it.  But they didn’t know about McGovern’s.  Most of what people knew about McGovern came from opposing campaign organizations.  The Amnesty, Abortion and Acid line.  He was a “peace freak,” which was seen as a bad thing.  He was a soft-spoken man too, not like Nixon.  Nixon always pretended to be channeling Moses.  But I still cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could have believed a word that came out of Nixon’s mouth, or how anyone could have voted for Nixon after so many campaigns in which he displayed himself to be so ethically bereft and morally dubious.  “Peace with honor!”  What a bunch of Rubes.  It should have been closer, anyway.  

Within a year or so we knew about the Watergate break in, and the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP!), and Spiro Agnew, nobody’s idea of a good vice-president, was out on his ass, and soon thereafter Nixon became the first president in American history to resign in disgrace under threat of impeachment.  I don’t recall anyone saying, “we should have voted for McGovern.” 

Well, I did vote for McGovern.  I remember thinking at the time, “I might as well vote for the Communist Worker Party candidate, for all the good it’ll do.”  But it was a vote for McGovern.  And since that time history has proved that he, and I, were right about issues like the war, and amnesty for draft-resistors and other matters.  We still don’t get any credit for our insight, though.  “Our kind” is still being blamed for ruining the fun by opposing the war, or restraining the government’s fullest prosecution of the war, or limiting the effectiveness of our troops, or something.  Nobody to this day wants to admit that it was a stupid war from the get-go, and badly run, and ended on lies.

So when you are considering your vote for president next year, remember this.  It’s always been a messy process, and the right choices are never as clear as bells, but the final choice is very important.
So make the best of it.  

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