Rejecting the McGovern Complex

The psychology of the middle-aged, self-described partisan/media political "expert" is something of a puzzle to me. Strip away all the bloviating, all the self-importance, all the haughtiness, and you'll find a deeply-rooted hatred of all things relating to George McGovern. The storyline, which Mark Schmitt notes is evident in the Lieberman-Lamont primary, goes something like this: McGovern, a B-24 bombing pilot in World War II, ran for president in 1972 on a platform opposing the Vietnam War, and supposedly because of this reason and this reason alone, he was deservedly crushed in his campaign against Richard Nixon. Therefore, the story goes, no Democratic candidate for any office in America can ever publicly say they believe wars in general - or a specific war - is anything other than a totally desirable objective. Unless a Democrat publicly salivates at the thought of having U.S. troops maimed and killed in operations aimed at maiming and killing foreigners, Mr. Middle Aged Political "Expert" will sternly remind them that they are supposedly going to be the next George McGovern. That is, the next national laughingstock.

I'll say up front: I wasn't alive when George McGovern ran in 1972. In my lifetime, George McGovern has been known for his international anti-poverty work at the United Nations. So, I'll admit - the disparaging of George McGovern as the Biggest Most Pathetic Loser In Human History is something that I have no firsthand experience with - I've only heard it regurgitated by Mr. Middle-Aged Political "Expert" ad nauseum. Nonetheless, even though I didn't live through McGovern's 1972 campaign, it seems clear the continued obsession with McGovern-loathing a third of a century after he ran for president is the psychotic behavior of people who have serious mental problems.

For instance, here are some questions in hindsight: Are we really supposed to believe that, in hindsight, George McGovern was so totally, completely, disgustingly wrong? Do media/party political "experts" - most of whom did everything they could to avoid serving in the war McGovern railed against - think it would have been a winning strategy to advocate remaining in Vietnam indefinitely? Do these "experts," who liken everything that happens today to the McGovern campaign, think the American people now believe we should have remained in Vietnam indefinitely? Do these "strategists" think the American public still believes it was great that Nixon won, and then dragged the country through Watergate, arguably the worst constitutional crisis in history? Do these "experts" think McGovern lost only because of his opposition to the war, and not because of, say, Richard Nixon's deft use of the racist "southern strategy?"

Similarly, here are some questions as related to today: Do these "experts" think the American people are so stupid as to still relate everything to an election that happened 34 years ago? Do these "experts" think Americans have no capacity to learn from past foreign policy mistakes, like Vietnam, especially when high-profile Republican Vietnam war heroes are now saying we may be going through another Vietnam? And even if we accept the false premise that McGovern lost only because of his position on Vietnam - do these "experts" expect us to simply accept that that same premise is 100 percent applicable today? With all of these questions, these "experts" - afflicted with McGovern Complex - clearly answer "yes," even though those "yes" answers are totally divorced from today's political reality.

Obviously, this McGovern Complex is playing out in the Lieberman-Lamont primary. Lieberman is running around now laughably saying he was always critical of the Iraq War, while also saying a victory by a critical-of-the-Iraq-War challenger would be a loss for "strong-on-security" Democrats. Beyond this pathetic dishonesty and contradiction, we can see that Lieberman is ultimately guided by his belief that, in the Era of George McGovern As The Worst Person In American History, the only definition of "strength" is the willingness of a politician to support indiscriminate bombings and invasions in far away places. In this totally distorted worldview, someone like Ned Lamont echoing the desire of the vast majority of Americans who want to see an exit strategy from Iraq is the equivalent of George McGovern circa 1972 or a terrorist issuing fatwas against America.

Polls have shown the American people are much smarter than this - they see the Iraq War as seriously damaging U.S. national security. More broadly, I believe that while neoconservative think tank staffers in Washington like Marshall Wittman, Bill Kristol, Marty Peretz and others may still masturbate in front of a mirror to the fantasy of putting George McGovern in a gulag and bludgeoning him with a rusty chain for his supposedly awful transgression of - gasp! - opposing the Vietnam War, most ordinary citizens aren't thinking about George McGovern (in fact, many probably don't even know who he is). What they are thinking about is the 3,000 plus American soldiers who have been killed, and the thousands more who have been injured, because of a war in Iraq based on calculated lies - calculated lies that were fabricated and pushed by the same people who have made their singular passion railing against all things George McGovern.

Let me be clear - I've read enough history (including Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail In '72") to know that McGovern ran a disastrously bad campaign - and no one is saying that we should replicate disastrously run campaigns. Additionally, I (probably like George McGovern who, after all, dropped bombs on people in WWII) fully believe that there is a role for judicious use of American military power when it comes to the missions that are really necessary to secure this country - the vast majority of Americans believe the same.

But the idea that, because of one badly run campaign in 1972, Democrats' default setting in order to win elections must now forever be in favor of any and all military confrontations, regardless of the actual necessity for U.S. national security, prospects for victory or rate of American casualties - that is not supported by any facts at all. The only thing it is supported by is the sick, scarred-from-being-bullied-on-the-playground psychology of a handful of 50-60-something "strategists" and columnists who reside largely in the Washington Beltway and who, for the most part, did everything they could to avoid fighting in the very war McGovern tried to stop.

What is this McGovern Complex psychology due to? I can't say for sure, though I suspect it has something to do with people who feel ashamed and weak at the memory of their draft dodging behavior in the 1960s and 1970s, and in some sick way, subconciously feel that aggressively pushing other people's children to die in wars may help them finally feel "strong." Thus, people like Joe Lieberman think that continuing to shill for the Iraq War - a war based on lies - and berating those who question the war is a way to finally show the world just how much of a man he is. It doesn't matter how many troops are killed or maimed - all that matters to Joe is a need to let everyone know that he's "strong," manly - and most importantly, not George McGovern.

Look, maybe Joe Lieberman and all the Middle Aged Political "Experts" who populate Washington, D.C. will tell me I'm too young to understand, and that it's actually true - the only thing that matters to voters in 2006 is an octogenarian who ran for president in 1972. But I suspect I'm right in that their war-at-all-costs advice could only come from people who have never seen a fellow soldier's head blown off in a spray of machine gun fire; that most Americans are generally not wild-eyed warmongers and specifically oppose the Iraq War; and what really matters is, like Ned Lamont, ignoring this class of professional-election losers because their campaign prescriptions are based not on reality, but on out-of-control paranoias and insecurities about their own personal weakness.