And when I do despair, I remember one of my favorite bleeding-heart liberals. He lost one of the most lopsided elections for president in our history, but he was a great man who never stopped fighting for the causes he believed in, a man who inspired many of my generation to believe that we could build a better society. When he died in October of 2012, at the age of 90, I wrote this blog post in tribute.
George McGovern, bleeding-heart liberal
1922 - 2012
George McGovern was always a hero of mine. He was a war hero, a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, who understood the costs of war, and always tried to stop his country from rushing headlong into ill-conceived testosterone-driven military adventures. He spoke out against what he considered the tragic mistake of the American war in Vietnam and he opposed the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a man who was firm in his convictions and never backed away from them, even when it might have been politically advantageous to do so.
When he was derided by conservatives for his liberal ideals that endorsed a progressive federal government that would protect the weak and vulnerable and expand economic opportunity to everyone, he continued to stand strongly for those ideals. As a senator, he championed civil rights and anti-poverty bills. He helped to expand food stamp and nutrition programs. Even after he left government, he continued to write and lecture about those liberal values. In a recent book, he wrote:
During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I've been labeled a 'bleeding-heart liberal.' It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society's ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
Indeed, he wore the label "bleeding-heart liberal" proudly, as a badge of honor.
McGovern has now left us, at the age of 90. He had a long and productive life, a life of service to his community, state, and country; not a life of amassing great piles of money. He will be remembered by many as the man who lost disastrously to Richard Nixon in the presidential race in 1972. It's interesting to speculate how the world might have been different had he won. Interesting maybe, but pointless. History moves relentlessly onward.
In an interview in 2006, McGovern spoke about his view of our country:
I still think this is the greatest country on Earth. It must be great, because we make these horrendous mistakes, but we bounce back. I saw this country survive the Great Depression through the 1920s and 1930s, when I was growing up. I saw us not only survive, but win World War II, when we had to come back from almost nothing. I see this country slowly awakening to the environmental threat and doing something about it. It must be a great place. (My emphasis.)It might be a summation of the history of our country: We make these horrendous mistakes, but we bounce back. It's comforting to hear that reassurance from a man who lived through so much of it.
George McGovern was a man who loved his country and always tried to serve it. He was a man strong enough to be undeterred by the derision of lesser men. He was a bleeding-heart liberal, a shining example for us all to try to live up to. I consider one of the most righteous votes I ever cast the one I cast for him for president in 1972. He remains a hero to me.