Ky. Voices: McGovern's lesson: Cynicism is laziness

The 1972 campaign of George McGovern, who died a week ago at age 90, was the first that I was even marginally active in. Oh, I was keenly interested in the 1968 campaign with the fiasco in Chicago, the murder of Sen. Bobby Kennedy and divisions over the war in Vietnam. The Democratic Party underwent a schism over the war and other cultural issues. When it convened in Chicago, the convergence of Mayor Richard Daley's stormtroopers and the various protesters ripped it apart.

Until then, conventions were run with deals cut in smoke-filled rooms and party bosses telling delegates how to vote. After the 1968 debacle and the narrow loss to Richard Nixon, the party did some soul-searching and decided to make the nomination process more representative and transparent.

There was a concerted effort to involve more youth, African-Americans and women, and a lot of the power was removed from the bosses. I was one of the delegates to our state convention, which was going to choose delegates to the national convention, which means I was a pretty small fish.

However, I was idealistic and believed right would always triumph. Boy, were my eyes opened. We ended up approving a slate of the same old party players committed to the leadership of Gov. Wendell Ford. We came in, cast a vote, and were told "thank you for your service, see you later."

But the new rules swayed the selection process in other states and George McGovern of South Dakota was nominated. I could not fathom how anyone would not be eager to vote for this man. He was against the war in Vietnam, for equal rights for African-Americans and women, and would lead the United States into a new progressive utopian future.

As unlikely as it seemed, the people elected Nixon again in a landslide of historic proportion. I had to question my understanding of the political process.

McGovern was a remnant of that progressive plains politician who came of age during The Depression and World War II, believing that the common man was the just recipient of the benefits of democracy. He saw the injustice of the war in Vietnam that allowed the wealthy to escape the bogs and jungles while the poor went out to their deaths — 54,000 of them. He famously said that the Senate chamber "reeked of blood." I have always been proud that our own Sen. John Sherman Cooper was an early antagonist of the war. A Republican from Somerset, he could never be elected today with the sentiments of his party as they now exist.

But, McGovern was right. A year or so later Nixon would resign in disgrace and the U.S. would begin extracting our forces from Vietnam. By 1975 the troops were home and the North Vietnamese Army swept over South Vietnam. Oh sure, we could have defeated them just like we could defeat the Iraqis, the Afghans or anyone else as long as we could recognize who to fight. But therein lies the problem. McGovern saw that and recognized that there was no rationale for continuing to fight an endless war to prop up a corrupt government. Familiar? He saw that we were embroiled in a civil war that did not have a good ending for us.

The country had gone through quite enough with Johnson, Nixon and the war and elected a Sunday school teacher from Plains, Ga., next time around. All he had to do was promise never to lie to us. I don't think he did.

But my youthful idealism was crushed. I went on to study political science, not with any idea of engaging in politics but rather as preparation for law school. That didn't happen either. For years I watched my party send up liberal Democrats only to have them slapped down, which only reinforced my cynicism and refusal to engage. Then, of course, came Bill Clinton who showed the Democrats the way out of the wilderness, even though not a few of us weren't too excited over it.

What I have learned is this: Cynicism is no substitute for positive actions. It is only an excuse to validate one's laziness and inertia. It defies the charter given to us by the Founders who knew the pubic would have to be active for the experiment to work. Idealism should never be forgotten even if it sometimes must be tempered with judgment.

Unlike me, George McGovern never gave up. It just was not in him. He brought that same persistence and tenacity to his love of country in the same way he earned all those decorations for his service in combat. Yes, he lost an election hugely but he never fell victim to cynicism. Whatever you may think of the man, you should respect him for his love of country and selfless dedication. I will remember him and the lessons he taught me fondly.