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This column is personal.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Sen. George McGovern’s run for president as the Democratic candidate. I was his “body man,” almost always with the candidate and serving as his point of contact with others. I traveled around the world with him.
This year also marks the anniversary of my being placed on President Richard Nixon’s so-called “Enemies List” of people who opposed his re-election. His aides sent the list to the IRS so that we could be harassed by audits, possibly revealed as cheats and put at risk of punishment.
The McGovern campaign was mostly about ending the Vietnam War, which divided the country and produced deadly confrontation. We made some major mistakes, and McGovern lost badly. The war continued three more years and did lasting damage to the country.
The Enemies List, like the Nixon campaign’s break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, blew up on the president. The IRS refused to audit the enemies. The Watergate scandal and attempted cover-up forced Nixon to resign when he was faced with the certainty of being impeached and convicted.
Both McGovern’s patriotic and hopeful candidacy and Nixon’s unlawful and destructive response still echo, though somewhat hollowly, down the decades.
The theme of McGovern’s candidacy was “Come Home, America.” In accepting the Democratic nomination, he urged, “Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.”
McGovern believed that Americans have a shared dream. No matter their differences on government’s role in realizing the nation’s common aspirations, all Americans agree on striving to live in a society “with liberty and justice for all.”
For him and his supporters, the Vietnam War in which tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese would die was moving the country away from that shared dream. Fighting North Vietnam could stop the spread of Communism, his opponents said. We cannot win that war on Asian battlefields, he said.
In the end, North Vietnam prevailed. Communism did not spread from that country. Now the U.S. wants to boost trade with Vietnam. Yet, despite the changed U.S. policy toward Vietnam, McGovern’s call for the country to come home still goes unheeded with the U.S. even more divided.
Perhaps the saddest part of the legacy of that long-ago campaign is that America did not come home. It left home.
Even at the moment of McGovern’s most bitter attack on the Vietnam War, senators on the other side respected him. He was a decorated World War II bomber pilot and had earned the right to oppose an American war.
Such respect barely exists in the country that Donald Trump has tried to shape. His loyalists, people who enjoy his enthusiastic endorsements, know no limits on their attacks and outright hatred of those who have a different view of the role of government. They lean toward authoritarian rule, the exact opposite of the original American dream.
In many states, Trump’s Republicans try to make it more difficult for people to vote. The GOP exploits the broadly stated principles of the Constitution to ensure that a minority party can hold onto power by any means possible.
McGovern, the son of a Methodist minister, did not favor aligning the political system with a single set of religious beliefs. That would be contrary to the expressed view of the nation’s founders. But in many places, starting at the Supreme Court, that’s what’s happening.
The partisan divide permeates public debate. Perhaps trying to appear to be fair, the New York Times naively revealed it was statistically possible for the IRS to randomly select for deep scrutiny the tax returns of two former FBI directors that Trump had labeled as criminals. The newspaper looked more gullible than fair.
Can any rational person believe there was no politics, just statistical chance, when Trump’s enemies were subject to rare IRS audits? I can’t.
When my time came to be audited, somebody decided the White House request went too far, that it violated American values. Was there anybody of conscience left when the supposedly random audits of the FBI leaders came up?
The Democrats spout pious reminders of the need for Americans to honor their shared values. Where are those values when a president cheers on an insurrection at the Capitol, fails to condemn threats to the life of his vice president and, in my view, sets the IRS on his designated enemies?
If America should come home, what does our home look like? Finding the will of the people on that question is the biggest issue.
As for my family, we disliked the Washington system that put personal and partisan agendas ahead of the national interest, so a half century ago we came home. To Maine.