But McGovern’s loss was not an unalloyed victory for the Right. Conservatives swallowed their doubts about Richard Nixon in order to prevent a “liberal with terminal hemophilia” from entering the White House. Nixon went on to disgrace himself, leaving as his legacy not only Watergate but also wage and price controls, the Environmental Protection Agency, and countless other big-government interventions. Would the country have been better off if it had elected honest George McGovern as president in 1972 rather than a scheming Richard Nixon? It’s an open question, but I plump for McGovern — we would have been spared Jimmy Carter and might have wound up with Ronald Reagan in the White House four years early.
George McGovern was an honest man. A fighter pilot in World War II, he was always honorable in dealing with his Senate colleagues, and he was a man of his word — albeit seriously misguided when it came to both domestic and foreign policy.
But, in his later years, surprisingly, McGovern became an ally of conservatives on a few key issues. He wrote a famous op-ed in the Wall Street Journal
in 1992 in which he recounted how he had gone bankrupt trying to run a Connecticut hotel. One of his biggest challenges had been dealing with myriad federal and state regulations:
I wish during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made be a better U.S. Senator and a more understanding presidential contender. . . . We intuitively know that to create job opportunities, we need job entrepreneurs who will risk their capital against an expected payoff. Too often, however, public policy does not consider whether we are choking off these opportunities.
Toward the end of his life, McGovern was also a key ally in the fight to defeat so-called card-check legislation. It became the No. 1 priority of union bosses after Obama’s election in 2008, because it would provide a way to bypass the requirement for secret-ballot elections to unionize a company. Instead, under card-check rules, a company’s employees would be declared pro-unionization, as having selected a union, when a simple majority of workers had signed a card — often in the presence of union organizers — stating support for such a move.
McGovern lobbied Congress against card check, and he also appeared in an ad sponsored by a pro-business group that called secret ballots in union elections a “basic right.”
“It’s hard to believe that any politician would agree to a law denying millions of employees the right to a private vote,” McGovern said in the ad. “I have always been a champion of labor unions. But I fear that today’s union leaders are turning their backs on democratic workplace elections.” In a follow-up interview with the Hill newspaper, McGovern said that a secret ballot is fundamental to the American understanding of democracy: “When we elect a president, sheriff, or member of Congress, we walk into the voting booth and pull the curtain free of anyone trying to twist our arm.”
No one ever could twist George McGovern’s arm — either when he was wrong or when he was right. The prairie populist was his own man throughout his career, and the Democratic party and the country are both the poorer for his loss.