I started writing for TomDispatch.com in 2007. I really thought I had one article to write, focusing on the disastrous Iraq War and the way in which the Bush/Cheney administration was hiding its worst results behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus. Here we are, in 2020, and my latest article is my 75th contribution to the site, which truly amazes me. Special thanks to Tom Engelhardt for publishing my first piece back in 2007 and for setting a stellar example of what alternative freethinking media can be.
We Could Use A Leader Like George McGovern Again
By William J. Astore
As I lived through the nightmare of the election campaign just past, I often found myself dreaming of another American world entirely. Anything but this one.
In that spirit, I also found myself looking at a photo of my fourth-grade class, vintage 1972. Tacked to the wall behind our heads was a collage, a tapestry of sorts that I could make out fairly clearly. It evoked the promise and the chaos of a turbulent year so long ago. The promise lay in a segment that read “peace” and included a green ecology flag, a black baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, who had died that year), and a clenched fist inside the outline of the symbol for female (standing in for the new feminism of that moment and the push for equal rights for women).
Representing the chaos of that era were images of B-52s dropping bombs in Vietnam (a war that was still ongoing) and a demonstration for racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace (probably because he had been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt that May). A rocket labeled “USA” reminded me that this country was then still launching triumphant Apollo missions to the moon.
How far we’ve come in not quite half a century! In 2020, “peace” isn’t even a word in the American political dictionary; despite Greta Thunberg, a growing climate-change movement, and Joe Biden’s two-trillion-dollar climate plan, ecology was largely a foreign concept in the election just past as both political parties embraced fracking and fossil fuels (even if Biden’s embrace was less tight); Major League Baseball has actually suffered a decline in African-American players in recent years; and the quest for women’s equality remains distinctly unfulfilled.
Bombing continues, of course, though those bombs and missiles are now aimed mostly at various Islamist insurgencies rather than communist ones, and it’s often done by drones, not B-52s, although those venerable planes are still used to threaten Moscow and Beijing with nuclear carnage. George Wallace has, of course, been replaced by Donald Trump, a racist who turned President Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of my grade school years into a national presidential victory in 2016 and who, as president, regularly nodded in the direction ofwhite supremacists.
Progress, anyone? Indeed, that class photo of mine even featured the flag of China, a reminder that Nixon had broken new ground that very year by traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and de-escalate the Cold War tensions of the era. Nowadays, Americans only hear that China is a military and economic threat; that Joe Biden and some Democrats are allegedly far too China-friendly (they aren’t); and that Covid-19 (aka the “Wuhan Flu” or “Kung Flu”) was — at least to Donald Trump and his followers — a plague sent by the Chinese to kill us.
Another symbol from that tapestry, a chess piece, reminded me that in 1972 we witnessed the famous Cold War meeting between the youthful, brilliant, if mercurial Bobby Fischer and Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in a match that evoked all the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War. Inspired by Fischer, I started playing the game myself and became a card-carrying member of the U.S. Chess Federation until I realized my talent was limited indeed.
The year 1972 ended with Republican Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over Democratic Senator George McGovern, who carried only my home state of Massachusetts. After Nixon’s landslide victory, I remember bumper stickers that said: “Don’t blame me for Nixon, I’m from Massachusetts.”
Eighteen years later, in 1990, I would briefly meet the former senator. He was attending a history symposium on the Vietnam War at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, as a young Air Force captain, I chased down a book for him in the Academy’s library. I don’t think I knew then of McGovern’s stellar combat record in World War II. A skilled pilot, he had flown 35 combat missions in a B-24 bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for, at one point, successfully landing a plane heavily damaged by enemy fire and saving his crew. Nixon, who had served in the Navy during that war, never saw combat. But he did see lots of time at the poker table, winning a tidy sum of money, which he would funnel into his first political campaign.
Like so many combat veterans of the “greatest generation,” McGovern never bragged about his wartime exploits. Over the years, however, that sensible, honorable, courageous American patriot became far too strongly associated with peace, love, and understanding. A staunch defender of civil rights, a believer in progressive government, a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, he would find himself smeared by Republicans as weak, almost cowardly, on military matters and an anti-capitalist (the rough equivalent today of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders).
Apparently, this country couldn’t then and still can’t accept any major-party candidate who doesn’t believe in a colossal military establishment and a government that serves business and industry first and foremost or else our choice in 2020 wouldn’t have been Trump-Pence versus Biden-Harris.
Channeling Lloyd Bentsen
As I began writing this piece in late October, I didn’t yet know that Joe Biden would indeed win the most embattled election of our lifetime. What I did know was that the country that once produced (and then rejected) thoughtful patriots like George McGovern was in serious decline. Most Americans desperately want change, so the pollsters tell us, whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or socialists. Both election campaigns, however, essentially promised us little but their own versions of the status quo, however bizarre Donald Trump’s may have been.
In truth, Trump didn’t even bother to present a plan for anything, including bringing the pandemic under control. He just promised four more years of Keeping America Trumpish Again with yet another capital gains tax cut thrown in. Biden ran on a revival of Barack Obama’s legacy with the “hope and change” idealism largely left out. Faced with such a choice in an increasingly desperate country, with spiking Covid-19 cases in state after state and hospitals increasingly overwhelmed, too many of us sought relief in opioids or gun purchases, bad habits like fatty foods and lack of exercise, and wanton carelessness with regard to the most obvious pandemic safety measures.
Since the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and especially since September 11, 2001, it’s amazing what Americans have come to accept as normal. Forget about peace, love, and understanding. What we now see on America’s streets aren’t antiwar protesters or even beat cops, but Robocops armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry committing indefensible acts of violence. Extremist “militias” like the Proud Boys are celebrated (by some) as “patriots.” Ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories are taken all too seriously with political candidates on the Republican side of the aisle lining up to endorse them.
Even six-figure death tolls from a raging pandemic were normalized as President Trump barnstormed the country, applauding himself to maskless crowds at super-spreader rallies for keeping Covid-19 deaths under the mythical figure of 2.2 million. Meanwhile, the rest of us found nothing to celebrate in what — in Vietnam terms — could be thought of as a new body count, this time right here in the homeland.
And speaking of potential future body counts, consider again the Proud Boys whom our president in that first presidential debate asked to “stand back and stand by.” Obviously not a militia, they might better be described as a gang. Close your eyes and imagine that all the Proud Boys were black. What would they be called then by those on the right? A menace, to say the least, and probably far worse.
A real militia would, of course, be under local, state, or federal authority with a chain of command and a code of discipline, not just a bunch of alienated guys playing at military dress-up and spoiling for a fight. Yet too many Americans see them through a militarized lens, applauding those “boys” as they wave blue-line pro-police flags and shout “all lives matter.” Whatever flags they may wrap themselves in, they are, in truth, nothing more than nationalist bully boys.
Groups like the Proud Boys are only the most extreme example of the “patriotic” poseurs, parades, and pageantry in the U.S.A. of 2020. And collectively all of it, including our lost and embattled president, add up to a red-white-and-blue distraction (and what a distraction it’s been!) from an essential reality: that America is in serious trouble — and you can take that “America” to mean ordinary people working hard to make a living (or not working at all right now), desperate to maintain roofs over their heads and feed their kids.
It’s a distraction as well from the reality that America hasn’t decisively won a war since the time George McGovern flew all those combat missions in a B-24. It’s a distraction from some ordinary Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake being not just manipulated and exploited, but murdered, hence the need for a Black Lives Matter movement to begin with. It’s a distraction from the fact that we don’t even debate gargantuan national security budgets that now swell annually above a trillion dollars, while no one in a position of power blinks.
Today’s never-ending wars and rumors of more to come remind me that George McGovern was not only against the Vietnam conflict, but the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Joe Biden, meanwhile, voted for the Iraq War, which Donald Trump also spoke in favor of, then, only to campaign on ending this country’s wars in 2016, even if by 2020 he hadn’t done so — though he had set up a new military service, the Space Force. Feeling the need to sharpen his own pro-war bona fides, Biden recently said he’d raise “defense” spending over and above what even Trump wanted.
If you’ll indulge my fantasy self for a moment, I’d like to channel Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee who, in a debate with his Republican opposite Dan Quayle, dismissed him as “no Jack Kennedy.” In that same spirit, I’d like to say this to both Trump and Biden in the wake of the recent Covid-19 nightmare of a campaign: “I met George McGovern. George McGovern, in a different reality, could have been my friend. You, Joe and Donald, are no George McGovern.”
Prior military service is not essential to being president and commander-in-chief, but whose finger would you rather have on America’s nuclear button: that of Trump, who dodged the draft with heel spurs; Biden, who dodged the draft with asthma; or a leader like McGovern, who served heroically in combat, a leader who was willing to look for peaceful paths because he knew so intimately the blood-spattered ones of war?
A Historical Tapestry for Fourth Graders as 2020 Ends
What about a class photo for fourth graders today? What collage of images would be behind their heads to represent the promise and chaos of our days? Surely, Covid-19 would be represented, perhaps by a mountain of body bags in portable morgues. Surely, a “Blue Lives Matter” flag would be there canceling out a Black Lives Matter flag. Surely, a drone launching Hellfire missiles, perhaps in Somalia or Yemen or some other distant front in America’s endless war of (not on) terror, would make an appearance.
And here are some others: surely, the flag of China, this time representing the growing tensions, not rapprochement, between the two great powers; surely, a Trump super-spreader rally filled with the unmasked expressing what I like to think of as the all-too-American “ideal” of “live free and die”; surely, a vast firenado rising from California and the West, joined perhaps by a hurricane flag to represent another record-breaking year of such storms, especially on the Gulf Coast; surely, some peaceful protesters being maced or tased or assaulted by heavily armed and unidentified federal agents just because they cared about the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
And I suppose we could add something about sports into that collage, maybe an image of football players in empty stadiums, kneeling as one for racial equality. Look, sports used to unite us across race and class lines, but in his woebegone presidency, Donald Trump, among others, used sports only to divide us. Complex racial relations and legacies have been reduced to slogans, Black Lives Matter versus blue lives matter, but what’s ended up being black and blue is America. We’ve beaten ourselves to a pulp and it’s the fight promoters, Donald Trump above all, who have profited most. If we are to make any racial progress in America, that kind of self-inflicted bludgeoning has to end.
And what would be missing from the 2020 collage that was in my 1972 one? Notably, clear references to peace, ecology, and equal rights for women. Assuming that, on January 20th, Joe Biden really does take his place in the Oval Office, despite the angriest and most vengeful man in the world sitting there now, those three issues would be an ideal place for him to start in his first 100 days as president (along, of course, with creating a genuine plan to curb Covid-19): (1) seek peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere by ending America’s disastrous wars; (2) put the planet first and act to abate climate change and preserve all living things; (3) revive the Equal Rights Amendment and treat women with dignity, respect, and justice.
One final image from my fourth-grade collage: an elephant is shown on top of a somewhat flattened donkey. It was meant, of course, to capture Richard Nixon’s resounding victory over George McGovern in 1972. Yet, even with Joe Biden’s victory last week, can we say with any confidence that the donkey is now on top? Certainly not the one of McGovern’s day, given that Biden has already been talking about austerity at home and even higher military spending.
Sadly, it’s long past time to reclaim American idealism and take a stand for a lot less war and a lot more help for the most vulnerable among us, including the very planet itself. How sad that we don’t have a leader like George McGovern in the White House as a daunting new year looms.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.
13 thoughts on “Black and Blue in America”
I read the article in TomDispatch earlier today.
Do you ever let yourself fantasize about where the country would be today if McGovern had won 48 years ago?
I sometimes extrapolate from JFK’s survival and another win in ’64, or even Bobby’s survival and win in ’68. Would there be less hatred today, more equality, a much smaller and less pervasive MIC? Would the U.S. look more like, say, Switzerland, or even, at a minimum, Canada? It seems, as you allude, that almost 50 years after McGovern’s defeat, the reality is that the forces of repression, nationalism, me-first-ism, all have prevailed. The better angels McGovern represented have been effectively silenced.
I worked on America’s bombs and missiles for 20 years and I am disgusted by the widespread, continuous, and cavalier use of these weapons by our civilian and military “leaders.” Arrogance, delusion, and short-term thinking that are rapidly eroding our standing, sanity, and stability as a nation.
I was in 2d grade in 1972. I don’t really remember the election – it seems to be more of a vulgar, inescapable event in recent decades. But I do remember the sense of the seeming wildness in the early 1970s – the local scene in the Bay Area (streakers were not uncommon, hippie communes in the neighborhood, biker gangs on the highways, the SLA, the Cal campus scene, etc), national (Watergate), global (Vietnam, the 1972 Olympics). My conclusion was that adults didn’t know what they were doing and that I should be skeptical of any info coming from official sources. I’m still confident that I nailed that one pretty good 45 years ago.
In prep for this year’s idiocracy, I re-read ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72’. Lots of echoes. A reviled monster of an incumbant agitating the agitatable, a large pack of nobodies, wannabes, hustlers, and a few good prospects running on the other side. Considering that race as something of an analogy for 2020, once the field was winnowed, this time the DNC went the other way and architected the Muskie win – the boring, demented lifer (Biden) instead of the McGovern dynamic reformer who had the energy of the young behind him (Bernie). We are in more risk averse times and the interests preferred the known and controllable rather than anyone with any new ideas and energetic support from regular people. Anyone who would really rock the boat.
I tell my kids that in my assessment, the 1970s were the peak of U.S. society. There was more personal freedom, tolerance of diverse modes of living, and the government was far more humble after the shellacking in Vietnam. Today it is a fractious, control-freak society.
No, the last worldly, humble president we had was GHW Bush. Bush I and McGovern were quite men who once did a harrowing job then moved on with their lives into other things. Their military service was not tattooed on their foreheads but their lessons from doing complicated and dirty jobs informed their mentalities.
I won’t miss President Camacho/Trump and I expect nothing new or good from a career hack like Biden. Our recent craven times are not about to end.
I will continue to think fondly of the 1970s – the name and activities of any president were hardly a part of our daily lives.
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I was with you 100% until you got to GHWB. He was a willing CIA tool with a closet stuffed full of skeletons. Otherwise, though, yes! The late ’60s and the ’70s, albeit a period of tumult and explosive happenings, were a time of enormous potential. None of which panned out, ending with “that tired old man we elected king,” Ronnie Raygun.
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Denise, I don’t disagree with you and thank you for calling me on my gross simplification. I agree that the dirty deeds particularly with respect to Central America are unforgivable stains on his reputation. He had others, as you note. He was more of the puppet-master mindset than was McGovern and evinced this in many ways. I went over to Desert Storm with the Marines and thought that it was a stupid move at the time and, in retrospect, a cataclismic event that we are paying for today. And the supposed adult realists in the GHWB admin really screwed the pooch by starting the NATO expansion process which guaranteed Russian animosity and revenge.
I mainly meant that he was not, like McGovern was not, a personally vainglorious person. Can you imagine such stolidity ever again. I pointed him out because he was the last plausible generally decent as an individual person who became president. Note, I do not include Ford, Carter, or Reagan in the list of the individually decent, just trying to make a sort-of comparison to McGovern to show that McGovern was a rarity but not a one off as a man or politician. But definitely, McGovern was not a global policeman/assassin type or even sympathizer.
Well….GHWB couldn’t be personally vainglorious, because he was a spook. His background in the CIA was deep, going back many years.
Neither was he plausibly generally decent as an individual. His family was steeped in corruption, not least of which in its ties to the House of Saud. I understand the comparison you’re making, but I just don’t think Poppy is a worthy subject.
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and filthy rich… the Bush clan try and hide that
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At the end of January 1972, I came back to the US from an extended 18-month tour-of-dirty in the now defunct Republic of South Vietnam. I had agreed to serve an additional six months “at the request and for the convenience of the government.” In return, I got six months shaved off my penurious six year enlistment in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club (a.k.a., the United States Navy) so that I could return to college in time for the Spring Semester. I had met (and fallen in lust with) a lovely Chinese lady in Taiwan while on R&R there; couldn’t wait to get back to her; and had a lot of Japanese and Mandarin Chinese credits to pile up in order to qualify for the Foreign Exchange Student program at California State University, Long Beach. One look at the political situation in the country of my birth only confirmed my eagerness to get the hell out of the asylum and back to civilization as soon as possible. “Why change Dicks in the middle of a screwing” seemed to explain the resigned, apathetic attitude.
So I watched from afar in November of 1972 as Tricky Dick Nixon and Henry “Der Bomber” Kissinger — the two sons-of-bitches who sent me to Vietnam two years previously — blew away the hapless McGovern, campaign promising “Peace is at Hand.” Naturally, once re-elected they bombed the living shit out of North Vietnam on Christmas Day. The entire world erupted in revulsion; some petty burglary and cover-up activities began to receive legal investigation; and The Mother Of All “-Gates” (Watergate) began the inexorable process of running, first, VP Spiro Agnew, and then President Tricky Dick Nixon out of town one step ahead of impeachment and conviction.
Throughout his scurrilous red-baiting career, people had warned Dick Nixon: “Be careful whom you kick in the face on your climb up the greasy pole because you will encounter the same people again on the slide back down again.” Obviously, no one has ever dared to relate this timeless wisdom to Donald Trump. From the “unhelpful” activities of John McCain’s daughter and the Bush Clan this election season, it still seems operative to me. As Khan Noonian Singh said to his nemesis James T. Kirk: “Do you know the Klingon proverb that says Revenge is a dish best served cold?”
Trump didn’t create the rabid, bible-thumping religious cult that now calls itself the Republican party, but he did ruthlessly exploit its cultural grievances and Messianic longings when it served his own ambitions. Many political commentators now caution that ex-President Donald Trump will take The Trump Show back out into cable-tv land where he first learned to profit from America’s lowest entertainment “standards.” Perhaps he even expects tons of free media attention like he got in 2016. Many Republican politicians fear the political mayhem he might inflict on the two hopelessly corrupt right-wing factions jockeying for jobs in the inept U.S. “government” bureaucracy. Perhaps he can even get back to flogging conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s “missing” birth certificate. It worked for him before.
Personally, I think Gotterdammerung II: The Twilight of the Girls will prove far more horror-show “entertaining” as the doddering Siegfried, Joe Biden, finds himself surrounded by BroomHillary and the Vicious, Venal Valkyries eager to show they can bomb the shit out of foreign peasants even more viciously than the “men” ever could.
Pardon the “misogynist” in an old swab-jockey, but I can already hear echoes of 1972 four years from now: “Why change “damsels” in the middle of a “distress”?
Unsurprisingly, my favorite Australian lady artist/journalist, Caitlin Johnstone and I agree: Biden Will Have The Most Diverse, Intersectional Cabinet Of Mass Murderers Ever Assembled (November 9, 2020).
As British Admiral Lord Nelson lamented before a great naval battle after looking over a roster of his fleet’s captains: “I can only hope that when the enemy reads a list of their names that he trembles, as I do.”
If President-select Joe Biden doesn’t shake in his shoes after looking over the garish Christmas-tree-decorations collectively assembled as America’s fuck-up-and-move-up Joined Chefs of Stuff, then he will have a much shorter tenure as “Commander in Brief” than even the inept Donald J. Trump had.
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Faces, genders, and colors may change, but the bombs and missiles remain the same.
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A huge majority of American’s do not want thoughtful men like McGovern as their political leaders. The most basic trait of the majority of Americans is to often just give everyone the finger.
Just fuck em and the horse they rode in on. I am certainly not saying Americans are any worse than any other people from any other time but on the other hand we are no better.
Regarding your mention of Lloyd Bentson and his famous remark. It was right on target BUT it is a perfect example of what Trump fans rage against – disrespect! There is no consideration of the grounds for disrespect, instead the act itself is cause for a tantrum with self-pity and self-righteousness allowed free rein.
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I started reading you on Tomdispatch years ago. I’m still a big fan.
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