My first introduction to George McGovern came courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson in his fantastic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, perhaps the late Dr. Thompson's best and most important work. In the wake of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the return of Richard Nixon, McGovern became the left's great hope against Nixon's politics and, more pressingly, the war in Vietnam. He would lose that election in 1972, embarrassingly so—every state save Massachusetts and the District of Columbia fell to Nixon. After the fact, many pinpointed the true moment of defeat as coming far earlier than Election Day, at the moment when McGovern abandoned his runningmate Thomas Eagleton after it emerged that the Missouri senator had suffered from depression and been treated with electroshock therapy. The outcry and mounting pressure, both externally and within the Democratic party, that occurred after Eagleton's personal battles with mental health became public led to this separation, a decision that was easily used by the Nixon campaign to make McGovern appear wavering, especially after McGovern had earlier said he was "1000 percent" behind Eagleton.
I remember reading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and seeing its echoes all around me, the resonances having easily survived the thirty years following Richard Nixon's landslide victory. Much of this has to do with the brilliance of Hunter Thompson; for all his faults, and to his credit he never shirked from them, Thompson had an eye for the world around him, an unmatched rhythm of thought and prose, and it will always be these qualities that endear him most to me even if for many he is little more than an eccentric, drug-addled satirist who once took a ill-fated trip to Las Vegas.
Thompson has his share of faults as reporter and essayist—I'd venture he was perhaps too idealistic, that he expected too much from people like George McGovern, that he was occasionally naive, that he lacked the point of view and nuances of language that Joan Didion demonstrates in her masterful Slouching Towards Bethlehem—but these faults do little to tarnish the impact his writing has had on me, not only as someone who harbors aspirations of finding employment as a writer, being able to have my words and essays resound as his did, but also as an American who struggles with the idea of America I have in my mind and the realities of American life on display every day, the distance between the day-to-day and my image of a country that doesn't seem impossible, yet always appears to be just out of reach. It may be said that perhaps I, too, am host to many of the faults that plagued Hunter Thompson, and I hope I am not alone.
It was this idealism, these inabilities to accept (perhaps to truly perceive in their awful entirety) the darkness of the political machinery at work, to succumb fully to that cynicism, that made McGovern the figure he was in Thompson's work, that made the late Senator the inspiration he was to many Americans, even if his political ambitions fell far short of the Oval Office. As Ben Heineman, Jr. wrote in his illuminating piece for the Atlantic, despite the realization that defeat was inevitable, "we also felt that the issues [central to the McGovern campaign], in the broad, were right: stopping the war; completing the civil rights revolution; extending that revolution to other groups in society, especially women; starting to focus on environmental protection." In the face of defeat these battles seemed even more important to be fighting, even if the skirmishes would end poorly for those on the left. Richard E. Meyer states it this way in his fine piece for the Los Angeles Times: "Part of his success [as a politician] was his attention to constituents [in South Dakota]. But another part was his authenticity, decency and sense of mission. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) noticed it. 'Of all my colleagues,' he said, 'the person who has the most feeling and does things in the most genuine way is George McGovern.'"
These tributes are moving, yet they pale in the face of the words Hunter Thompson wrote forty years ago in September of 1972:
"The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about 'new politics' and 'honesty in government,' is one of the few men who've run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.
"McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for."
It makes me profoundly happy to see how McGovern is being remembered in the American press, that his failure to attain the office of President of the United States is not his only lasting legacy, the last lingering memory of a political career that was far more important than that one profound defeat. I only wish more people were writing about the politics of today with the same passion and honesty, as Hunter Thompson was in 1972. Obviously this threatens to paint me as naive and unable to see the terrible political machinery at work around me, but as Heineman, Jr. and others felt as they lurched with McGovern towards defeat agains Nixon, some battles, even if they may not be won (and against the pocketbooks of the Koch Brothers, the mind-boggling alteration of reality and misrepresentation of facts that passes as "fair and balanced news," and so on, these battles may indeed be impossible to truly win), are worth fighting.