Held captive 4 your politics
They wanted 2 break your soul
They ordered the extermination
Of all minds they couldn’t control
4 u the fate was far worse
Than just a brutal homicide
They caged u like an animal
And watched u slowly die inside
As u Breathe your first air of freedom
On the day u become a free man
Raise your Regal brow in Pride
4 now you R in God’s Hands
The life of many were given
So that the day would one day come
That the devils in Power at Pretoria
Would pay for the evil crimes they’ve done
— Tupac Shakur, “Just a Breath of Freedom: 4 Nelson Mandela”, a poem from “The Rose That Grew From Concrete”
We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again — so it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love, to never discount the difference that one person can,make, to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.
President Barack Obama, statement on the death of Nelson Mandela, December 5, 2013
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.