George McGovern, the former South Dakota Senator, 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee, and longtime advocate for minorities, the poor, and the hungry, died this morning in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 90-year-old former Senator’s death was not unexpected as recent reports have detailed his failing health, but McGovern was actually quite active in politics and the issues he believed in until earlier this year.
McGovern was nominated by the Democrats to face incumbent President Richard Nixon in 1972 and routed in both the popular vote and Electoral College, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But McGovern’s legacy extends far beyond his unsuccessful 1972 bid for the Presidency. As liberal as Barry Goldwater was conservative, McGovern was a tireless advocate for the poor and the hungry, not just during his career as an elected official, but throughout his life and up until his death.
After the turbulent 1960s, as the Democratic Party was reshuffling itself demographically into what it has been for the past 40 years, it was George McGovern who welcomed and embraced minorities, women, young voters, and gays. Some people call this “progressive” in 2012; George McGovern thought that way in 1972. He was way ahead of his time — even for many Democrats. As he later joked about his landslide loss to Richard Nixon, “I opened the doors of the Democratic Party — and twenty million people walked out.” Indeed, in the 1972 election, nearly 1/3rd of all Democrats voted for Nixon instead of McGovern.
The GOP successfully painted McGovern as a radical, peace-seeking pacifist in 1972, and tried to portray him as somewhat of a wimp. McGovern was a dove on Vietnam, but he was no radical, no pacifist, and certainly no wimp. Several days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, McGovern enlisted in the Air Force and flew 35 combat missions over Germany, Italy, and Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Yet, peace was certainly an aspect that drove McGovern throughout his career, and helping those who were less fortunate was his ambition for public service. The war that McGovern constantly sought to fight was a war on hunger. It was a concern that he was vocal about during his time in the House and later in the Senate, and President Kennedy appointed McGovern as the first director of the Food For Peace program. Later in life, that fight to feed the hungry continued. Nearly 20 years after leaving the Senate, President Clinton (who, along with Hillary, managed the McGovern campaign in Texas in 1972) named him as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN’s Agencies for Food and Agriculture. For the last decade of his active life, McGovern was a United Nations’ Goodwill Ambassador on World Hunger for the UN’s World Food Programme.
Though the Democratic Party distanced itself from McGovern following the 1972 election because of the magnitude of his defeat and the Nixon campaign’s successful portrayal of him as a radical, McGovern’s impact on today’s Democratic Party cannot be denied. The voters that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 — African-Americans, women, Hispanics, gays, and young voters — were the people that George McGovern opened the doors of the Democratic Party to in 1972. He was a monument to American Liberalism and his legacy cannot be denied. Nearly all who worked with or against George McGovern — Democrats, Republicans, or Independents — respected his honesty, his ability, and his heart. In a divisive time when many politicians have forgotten the definition of public service, they should look to people like George McGovern and Bob Dole who personify the true intent of public service.
In the bipartisan spirit that he worked while seeking solutions that would help the most people possible, we should honor and remember George McGovern — not as a forward-thinking father of modern American Liberalism, and not even as a war hero — but as an American who represented the best of what our country can be and dedicated his life to the most faithful definition and purpose of public service.
Two days ago, I was watching the 1997 Ken Burns documentary on Thomas Jefferson and Gore Vidal was one of the talking heads who contributed to the film. Seeing Vidal reminded me that I had wanted to write him a letter to tell him how much I appreciated his work and to see if he would answer some questions for Dead Presidents because he was a top-notch Presidential historian and never afraid to give his opinions. Someone I know who had some connections had told me a few months ago that I might be able to land an interview because Mr. Vidal was usually excited to talk about Presidential history but suggested that I write my letter by hand and send it the old-fashioned way because Mr. Vidal would be more likely to pay attention to it that way.
Of course, I procrastinated because that is what I do. When I saw Vidal on the Jefferson documentary, I decided right then to write my letter. I had lost Mr. Vidal’s address, so I had to wait until my friend with the connections e-mailed it to me before I could put my letter in the mail. He responded this afternoon and I was going to send my letter to Gore Vidal tomorrow.
It’s always sad when somebody dies, but we feel better when the person who died lived a long, active life. Gore Vidal was a couple months shy of his 87th birthday, and his life was certainly active. He was a brilliant man — a great writer and great thinker. There were many who found his prolific work to be controversial, but I don’t see how some of it is seen as anything but courageous. Vidal never pretended to be someone that he wasn’t, and that meant telling the world who he was. He broke down barriers in the literary world as well as culturally. Above all else, he was never, ever ashamed to be the person he was, to say the things he said, to love the people he loved, and to share his passion — whether it be his appreciation of history or his vehement opposition to the Bush Administration.
For me, Gore Vidal opened up a whole new world of literature. I have rarely strayed from non-fiction and the idea of historical fiction always seemed silly to me. I thought of it at one point much like I think of fan fiction. I couldn’t understand why anyone would read historical fiction when they could just read the real story of whichever historical event might be the subject. Vidal showed me how well and how interesting historical fiction could be with the books in his Narratives of Empire series. Lincoln: A Novel (BOOK•KINDLE) not only opened my eyes to historical fiction’s advantages, but it remains one of my all-time favorites — of ANY type of book. Lincoln amazed me because I hadn’t realized that a historical fiction novel could augment the actual history and help illuminate the people and events that really existed. I was never taken out of the story by something that Vidal wrote in Lincoln. In fact, much of the story was so accurate historically that I often found myself thinking that every bit of dialogue was real. I enjoyed Burr: A Novel (BOOK•KINDLE) nearly as much as Lincoln.
In the letter that I didn’t get a chance to send, I told Gore Vidal that he helped me open my mind by showing me how historical fiction could be done right. That’s a relatively minor achievement because Vidal helped a lot of people open their minds to a lot bigger and more important ideas or thoughts. I didn’t always agree with Gore Vidal, but I always admired and respected him. Despite his death, his body of work will speak for him and I think it speaks in a loud voice because you didn’t have to like him or agree with him but you damn well were going to know what he thought. Unfortunately, I think America will be a little less honest without Gore Vidal around.
Harry C. McPherson, who was one of Lyndon B. Johnson’s most trusted aides, died on Thursday in Bethesda, Maryland, at the age of 82.
As one of LBJ’s closest confidants, he served the former President as a speechwriter, counsel, and wore many hats in the Johnson Administration. Due to his proximity to LBJ, McPherson has been an invaluable source for researchers of LBJ, the Johnson Administration, and the era in which Johnson served. If you have read a biography about Lyndon Johnson, there is a good chance that the author interviewed McPherson or used information from the extensive oral histories of McPherson at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.
I’m saddened to hear of Mr. McPherson’s death and disappointed that I missed my chance to see Mr. McPherson speak at the LBJ Library when I was in Austin. It would have been a privilege to have listened to him in-person as I have always been fascinated by the insight that Mr. McPherson was able to provide in his speeches, writings (including a wonderful memoir, A Political Education, published in 1972), as well as the aforementioned oral histories that he left behind.
“A Word About Words” — Vaclav Havel’s speech accepting the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association. The speech was written by Havel, and read in his absence by Maximilian Schell on October 15, 1989 at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany (translated by A.G. Brain for publication in the January 18, 1990 New York Review of Books):
“The prize which it is my honor to receive today is called a peace prize and has been awarded to me by booksellers, in other words, people whose business is the dissemination of words. It is therefore appropriate, perhaps, that I should reflect here today on the mysterious link between words and peace, and in general on the mysterious power of words in human history.
In the beginning was the Word; so it states on the first page of one of the most important books known to us. What is meant in that book is that the Word of God is the source of all creation. But surely the same could be said, figuratively speaking, of every human action? And indeed, words can be said to be the very source of our being, and in fact the very substance of the cosmic life form we call man. Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world (and not just as our locality), and lastly, our capacity for knowing that we will die — and living in spite of that knowledge: surely all these are mediated or actually created by words?
If the Word of God is the source of God’s entire creation, then that part of God’s creation which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God’s miracles — the miracle of human speech. And if this miracle is the key to the history of mankind, then it is also the key to the history of society. Indeed, it might well be the former just because it is the latter. For the fact is that if they were not a means of communication between two or more human “I’s”, then words would probably not exist at all.
All these things have been known to us — or people have at least suspected them — since time immemorial. There has never been a time when a sense of the importance of words was not present in human consciousness.
But that is not all: thanks to the miracle of speech, we know, probably better than the other animals, that we actually know very little, in other words, we are conscious of the existence of mystery. Confronted by mystery — and at the same time aware of the virtually constitutive power of words for us — we have tried incessantly to address that which is concealed by mystery, and influence it with our words. As believers, we pray to God, as magicians we summon up or ward off spirits, using words to intervene in natural or human events. As people who belong to a modern civilization — whether believers or not — we use words to construct scientific theories and political ideologies with which to tackle or redirect the mysterious course of history — successfully or otherwise. In other words, whether we are aware of it or not, and however we explain it, one thing would seem to be obvious: we have always believed in the power of words to change history — and rightly so, in a sense.
Why “rightly so”? Is the human word truly powerful enough to change the world and influence history? And even if there were epochs when it did exert such a power, does it still do so today?
You live in a country with considerable freedom of speech. All citizens without exception can avail themselves of that freedom for whatever purpose, and no one is obliged to pay the least attention, let alone worry their heads over it. You might, therefore, easily get the impression that I overrate the importance of words quite simply because I live in a country where words can still land people in prison.
Yes, I do live in a country where the authority and radioactive effect of words are demonstrated every day by the sanctions which free speech attracts…I do live in a country where a writers’ congress, or a speech delivered at it, is capable of shaking the system…Yes, I do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions, where Solzhenitsyn’s words of truth were regarded as something so dangerous that their author had to be bundled into an airplane and shipped out. Yes, in the part of the world I inhabit, the word “Solidarity” was capable of shaking an entire power bloc…
In truth, the power of words is neither unambiguous nor clear-cut. It is not merely the liberating power of Walesa’s words or the warning power of Sakharov’s. It is not just the power of Rushdie’s clearly misconstrued book. The point is that alongside Rushdie’s words, we have Khomeini’s. Alongside words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness, we have words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile; words that are harmful — lethal, even. The word as an arrow…
The point I am trying to make is that words are a mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent, and perfidious phenomenon. They can be rays of light in a realm of darkness…They can equally be lethal arrows. Worst of all, at times they can be one or the other. They can even be both at once!…
What a weird fate can befall certain words!…No word — at least not in the rather metaphorical sense I am employing the word “word” here — comprises only the meaning assigned to it by an etymological dictionary. Every word also reflects the person who utters it, the situation in which it is uttered, and the reason for its utterance. The same word can, at one moment, radiate great hope; at another, it can emit lethal rays. The same word can be true at one moment and false the next; at one moment illuminating, at another, deceptive. One one occasion it can open up glorious horizons; on another, it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps. The same word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while another, machine gun fire resounds in its every syllable…
The point is that all important events in the real world — whether admirable or monstrous — always have their prologue in the realm of words. As I’ve already said, my intention here today is not to convey to you the experience of one who has learned that words still count for something when you can go to prison for them. My intention is to tell you about another lesson that we in this corner of the world have learned about the importance of words; a lesson which I believe has universal application: namely, that it always pays to be suspicious of words and to be wary of them, and that we can never be too careful in this respect. There can be no doubt that distrust of words is less harmful than unwarranted trust in them.
Besides, to be wary of words and of the horrors that might slumber inconspicuously within them — isn’t this, after all, the true vocation of the intellectual?…(T)o listen carefully to the words of the powerful, to be watchful of them, to forewarn of their danger, and to proclaim their dire implications or the evil they might invoke…
At the beginning of everything is the word. It is a miracle to which we owe the fact that we are human. But at the same time it is a pitfall and a test, a snare and a trial. More, so perhaps, than it appears to you who have enormous freedom of speech, and might therefore assume that words are not so important.
They are important everywhere.”
“Nowadays, direct conversation among citizens, and between citizens and politicians, has become a marginal phenomenon. Indirect contacts, filtered through a whole system of intermediate links, or perhaps I could even say ‘intermediate worlds,’ have a far greater weight now…
Under these circumstances, many people hardly ever see a politician as a person anymore. Instead, a politician is a shadow they watch on television, not knowing whether he is speaking impromptu or reading a text written for him by anonymous advisers or experts from a screen hidden behind the cameras. Citizens no longer perceive their politician as a living human being, for they never have and will never see him that way. They see only his image, created for them by TV, radio, and newspaper commentators. If they want to ask a politician a question they can usually do so only in writing, and receive a reply from a nameless member of his staff. If they decide to vote for him in an election they often cannot give their vote to him alone but have to vote for a political party as well, and with it, for a number of other politicians about whom they know nothing and for whom they do not care, on a list they could not influence because such lists are put together by party secretariats the voters neither know nor elect. Politics ceases to be a part of the citizens’ immediate life and becomes something like a peculiar TV show, which could be comic or tragic, but which they can only watch.
From the viewpoint of the politicians, citizens are equally distant. They too seem no more than a shadow, a collectivized, anonymous mass speaking in most cases only through data produced by opinion polls. It also happens, rather often, that politicians do not actually talk to each other but only to one another’s shadows as they appear in the media…
The only thing that worries me is the depersonalization and dehumanization of politics that has come about with the progress of civilization. An ordinary human being, with a personal conscience, personally answering for something to somebody and personally and directly taking responsibility, seems to be receding farther and farther from the realm of politics. Politicians seem to turn into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major civilizational automatism which has gotten out of control and for which nobody is responsible.
Today’s world, as we all know, is faced with multiple threats. From whichever angle I look at this menace, I always come to the conclusion that salvation can only come through a profound awakening of man to his own personal responsibility, which is at the same time a global responsibility. Thus, the only way to save our world, as I see it, lies in a democracy that recalls its ancient Greek roots: democracy based on an integral human personality personally answering for the fate of the community.”
— Vaclav Havel, on accepting the Onassis Prize for Man and Mankind in Athens, Greece, May 24, 1993. Havel, a poet, playwright, dissident, and freedom fighter who became the last President of Czechoslovakia and first President of the Czech Republic, died earlier today. Havel is one of those few historical figures that most people from all sides of the political spectrum would agree is heroic and courageous. Havel was a peaceful soldier of the Cold War who used the power of language to free his people and harness the energy of intelligence, idealism, and good ideas in order to create change.