Over at the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart is usually on the mark, but his latest missive–Palin is the New McGovern–not only misses the boat, but unfairly trots out one of the most skewed historical comparisons.
Beinart should know better: The McGovern tag on every electoral insurgency needs to be retired.
Sarah Palin ain’t no George McGovern.
Not only is it a cheap shot to compare the career of a decorated World War II bomber pilot, historian, hugely admired and effective US Senator and JFK’s Food for Peace director with Palin, but it’s completely misleading to make any parallels between Palin’s dalliance with the fleeting Tea Party movement and the complexities of McGovern’s loss to President Richard Nixon in 1972.
The Democrats didn’t simply lose because of McGovern’s anti-war campaign; a huge variety of factors account for the Democrat’s loss that year.
More importantly, as long-time Washington Post observer David Broder noted in 2007, McGovern’s party reforms in 1972 not only gave birth to a new generation of activists and political leaders, but ultimately saved the Democratic Party from complete irrelevancy:
But that campaign has had long-term consequences. As evidenced by the turnout for this reunion, McGovern’s race attracted and trained a generation of young people who are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party today.
Youthful rebels then, gray-haired now, they still embody the two forces that define the Democratic Party — an insistence on openness and reform and a commitment to peace. As Bill Clinton, one of thousands who got his first national experience as a McGovern volunteer, put it in his message to the gathering, they are all “McGovern’s heirs.”
Gary Hart, who was McGovern’s campaign manager, made the bold statement that McGovern had “saved the Democratic Party” by forcing open the doors of a closed system and allowing all those outsiders — the anti-Vietnam War amateurs — to come in.
At the time, it certainly didn’t look like salvation to party leaders, who saw the Democrats losing seat after seat in the McGovern debacle. But the energy and talent McGovern enlisted have proved to be the party’s salvation. Without the reforms McGovern forced onto a reluctant Democratic establishment — including guaranteed representation for women and minorities in the convention hall — it is impossible to imagine that this year, the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination would be Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Boston Globe columnist James Carroll took McGovern’s vindicated legacy one step further in his column in 2004: But George McGovern Was Right:
Here’s the problem: In 1972, McGovern was right. If there is shame attached to that election, it is America’s for having so dramatically elected the wrong man. Apart from the rank dishonesty of Richard Nixon and his administration (a pattern of lies that would be exposed in Watergate), there were two world-historic issues that defined that election, and on both Nixon was wrong. 1972 was a fork in the road, and history shows that the United States made a turn into a moral wilderness from which it has yet to emerge…
McGovern was an opponent of the “we/they” vision. A prophet of detente, he has since been vindicated by history. He offered America a way out of the trap that opposes “realist” and “idealist” perspectives. McGovern understood not only that the Vietnam War was wrong but that in the nuclear age, the realist is the one who sees that the structures of war itself must be systematically dismantled. One hears the complaint from today’s Democrats that McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, did not tout his war hero’s record, but that entirely misses his most important point — that fear of war and glorification of war are simply not to be exploited for political purposes, whether at the personal level or the national. What McGovern the candidate refused to do is what American presidents should refuse to do.
What will be Sarah Palin’s legacy?
Perhaps Beinart can be excused; he was in diapers when McGovern was nominated in 1972.
But he is too smart to draw such a narrow historical analysis between a right-wing charlatan and a dedicated public official who has served as the conscience of the Democratic Party.
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.