I didn’t find out about George McGovern until I began looking through past candidates and their respective speeches/debates three years ago. I had decided to go back in time, election by election, in order to contextualize the bizarre rise of Trump in the political scene. It wound up being an enlightening experience, and in the near future I will share my thoughts on the candidates of the past by looking at their speeches, debates and results. Not to diminish the others, but my favorite was Senator McGovern from 1972, and that’s who I want to talk about today.
Once I discovered George McGovern, I was blown away by what a great candidate and overall great man he was. A decorated war hero, a decorated civilian (Presidential Medal of Freedom for Combating World Hunger), a prolific author and proud defender of his beliefs however unpopular they were in his own time. If by chance you’re interested in learning more, The Eighteen Day Running Mate by Joshua M Glasser and the more famous Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S Thompson are great sources on the campaign itself. The former has the benefit of hindsight and piecing the whole affair together after the fact, the latter has the benefit of being a primary source. I’d also personally recommend Terry: My Daughter’s Life and Death Struggle with Alcoholism by George McGovern himself for a heartbreakingly vulnerable insight into the man’s private life, and aftermath of his career. It’s one of the most honest and beautiful books I’ve ever read.
More than anything, I really wanted to write Senator McGovern a letter to express how much he inspired me personally even if his campaign failed. I wanted to tell him that he was the man we needed if not the one we deserved. Sadly, I learned that Senator McGovern had passed away just four years earlier. It’s a bittersweet reality; on the one hand I’m saddened I couldn’t share my appreciation for his work but on the other I’m glad he never had to witness the farce American politics soon became.
This is the speech that inspired me to find out more about this unrepentant Leftist who lost 49 states to 1 and still held his head up high. It’s my favorite speech in modern American history (and, as you’ll soon learn if you stick around, I’ve seen a lot of speeches.)
As Ive said before, this is my favorite speech in modern US History. It’s the only one I make a point to rewatch on a ~monthly~ basis for inspiration and entertainment. It’s also the only speech I’ve ever seen which made me fall in love with a candidate outright. Before seeing this for the first time, I only knew McGovern was an anti-Vietnam candidate who lost in a lopsided election. After the speech, I saw him as a great candidate mired by bad luck and mistreatment from his fellow Democrats. I now consider his candidacy to be a noble lost cause as well as a tragic turning point in our history as a nation. 1972 was the election where we chose the embodiment of corruption and cynicism over a bold idealist with the best platform I’ve ever seen from a major party. Love or hate McGovern’s progressive policies though, I don’t see how anyone couldn’t have respect for the man himself. Between his reputation for honesty and integrity, his willingness to stick to his principles no matter the blow-back, his lone successful grassroots nomination in history, his distinguished war record and his prolific authorship, George McGovern is what every politician ought to aspire to be.
Now that the fawning is out of the way, let’s analyze the speech itself. It begins with a bit of humor (“sunrise service”/”my choice for VP was challenged by only 39 other nominees!”) at the fact that it’s being delivered at such a late hour due to the delegates turning the VP nomination into a farce. While the circumstances were unfortunate, I admire McGovern for having the grace to laugh at himself. I think this was the better strategy as opposed to ignoring the elephant in the room, and a little levity goes a long way in making the audience let down their guard. There’s a subtle dig at Spiro Agnew as well, which I understand would have been a popular sentiment at that time.
I like the way he opens with a little preamble and then accepts the nomination. I’ll mention this in regards to other speeches, but I think this strategy is a lot more effective than those who accept immediately or only at the very end of their speech. That’s just a personal preference—I find that it keeps the momentum of the speech going stronger than the alternatives. Everyone is expecting those words to be spoken, so you can either relieve all the tension immediately, let it linger so long it’s forgotten or foster it just long enough for a dramatic moment.
From here, George does something unusual—he begins to list each and every one of his primary opponents one by one as well as his VP nominee and Ted Kennedy. I like this strategy as it heals the party (at least in theory) and celebrates its diversity. We’ve come a long way from that to where anyone daring to run against the anointed favorite is forever considered a spoiler and whipping boy, as was the case in 2016. If you’re aware of the shenanigans that some of these people pulled though, (like Muskie refusing to endorse George after he dropped out, or Humphrey trying to challenge the California “winner take all” rule at the convention,) then this section becomes somewhat bittersweet. To my knowledge McGovern never said an unkind word about Humphrey in his life, though as an observer of those primary debates and back door wrangling I get the feeling Humphrey would have gladly thrown George under the bus to get ahead politically. I confess that I don’t know everything that transpired between both men, but compare McGovern’s magnanimity to Humphrey calling Nixon to brown nose the day after the election. (And agreeing with Nixon’s barbs at McGovern’s expense.)
“Count where man’s glory both begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends,” is a quote by Yates that George will use here as well as his concession speech. I consider it his own rhetorical signature. “And I believe that American politics will never be the same again,” is a George original, and like the last words of Eagleton’s convention speech the same year, it ended up being somewhat haunting in its unintended meaning. Same thing with the quote “we are not conceding a single state to Richard Nixon!” where after it was all over, Nixon only conceded a single state to George.
About one-third of the way into the speech is where the policy starts to come in. What’s unusual is that George has managed to keep the momentum going up through this point, so despite the first nine minutes consisting mostly of self-aware humor and shout-outs, I haven’t been anxious to skip ahead like I often am watching these nomination acceptance addresses. Something else I may as well mention here is that he gives no family shout-outs whatsoever, despite his daughter Terry (and presumably the other children) being a frequent campaign stump speaker on his behalf. Compare that to many other convention speeches where the family shout-outs come at the beginning and drag everything down (and in some cases, seem to go on forever). I think it was wise to leave the family out of it, because George had already spent so much time introducing other Democrats, and part of what makes this particular speech so effective is its relative brevity. Personally, I dislike the family overtures in convention speeches. I’d say the time for that is the Farewell address and election night speech. They almost always feel like forced virtue signaling (“I have a family—just like you! I’m so relatable!”) unless the candidate is exceptionally warm and charismatic enough to pull it off. I personally prefer the convention speeches to focus on policy and legacy; I think it helps the speech transcend the person giving it and become a timeless call to arms (even if some of the issues/names are out of date).
McGovern, similar to Joe Biden, has the unique ability to disparage his opponent without getting nasty or unnecessarily personal. The way he does it is by calling Nixon “the unwitting unifer of the Democratic Party” and merely quoting Nixon himself (“you won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore!”) It’s the perfect blend of assertiveness and wholesomeness. The only time George maybe goes just a bit too far is when he calls the upcoming RNC (among other things) “smug.” But when you compare this to what the Republicans and even other Democrats would say past and present, that sounds absolutely tame by comparison. Of the Democrats, if Truman ’48 and Carter ’80 were too focused on bashing the opposition, while Mondale and Dukakis were far too conciliatory to the point of complete submission, McGovern’s speech was just the right balance.
At just around the halfway point, we come to McGovern’s signature issue of Vietnam. He delivers what he later admitted was his favorite line of the speech: “I want those doors open and I want that war closed!” to a standing ovation. As if this speech were tailor-made for my preferences, McGovern proceeds to quote Woodrow Wilson. If you read my future speech analyses, you’ll soon learn that I cannot stand the tired, dime a dozen Washington and Lincoln quotes. To me, they reek of uncreativity and wanting the name recognition as opposed to picking the most relevant and witty quote for the situation. So I afford a lot of praise to anyone for bucking that trend and giving other presidents and politicians a call-back in their speeches. This feels like McGovern genuinely cares about the quality of transparency (which is what the quote related to) and Wilson himself, as opposed to just virtue signaling through name dropping a founder via a shoehorned quote.
My own favorite lines of the speech (not including the finale) come when he mentions how since 1968 “20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins.” I love his rebuttal to Nixon’s “secret plan” in Vietnam by announcing his own public plan–”I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day!” to thunderous applause. McGovern says these lines with such conviction it’s impossible not to be moved by them. When he mentions how America will never prop up a corrupt dictatorship abroad, it makes me want to absolutely cry knowing we never really changed course and instead ramped up our militarism abroad. I can only imagine how heartbroken and frustrated George must have been seeing Iraq play out, not to mention all the other quagmires in between.
When George is talking about rebuilding infrastructure and getting America back on its feet, I get the feeling this would resonate far more today than it did back then. He sounds very similar to Bernie and even campaign-era Trump here. While his message was tragically overlooked in his own time, I think this rhetoric would ripen in the 21st Century. In the ’70s when we were still coasting off the new highways and infrastructure of the ’50s and ’60s, as well as coasting off the unprecedented economic boom from that time. With that in mind, I guess nobody could see how this ambitious program McGovern laid out was necessary. Nowadays when our bridges are crumbling and our railways far behind the world standard, I think we can all agree we could stand to rebuild our own country.
Then we get into George’s jobs and basic income guarantee, my own personal favorite policy of his. This I know was considered excessive in his own time, however with the current looming automation crisis I believe it’s going to become necessary far sooner than any of us expect. It’s this unique distinction that makes McGovern’s platform more far-sighted and ambitious than any I have ever seen, at least from a nominated major party candidate. Once again we hear a candidate talk about simplifying the tax code, another promise we never ever saw fulfilled. I’m prone to believe McGovern was more genuine about this issue than the others though, and this is due mostly to how long and how passionately he goes into the topic. (Most candidates give a quick reference to the tax code, get their applause, and then move on.)
Around 27 minutes in, my all-time favorite segment begins. From the words “And this is the time” McGovern will call his countrymen to action in the most profound chorus in any speech I have yet to see. Another favorite quote from this section: “We reject the view of those who say, America love it or leave it. We reply, let us change it so we may love it the more!” As someone who’s always been accused of being ungrateful or unpatriotic for calling attention to the ways my government could improve, that line is such a vindication coming from a war hero and Presidential candidate. It’s not a bad thing to constructively criticize your own supposedly free-speech-loving Democracy. In fact, the way a lot of Americans go around praising our free speech while simultaneously shaming anyone who uses it to constructively criticize public policy is one of the most disturbing examples of doublethink I’ve seen in real life.
In my opinion, what makes the “Come Home, America!” segment so viscerally effective is in how it comes right at the end. McGovern has spent the entire speech up to this point introducing his ideals and convincing us why they’re sound. If he’s done his job, by this point you agree with him that these policies are necessary. So when he reiterates his principles here, broken up by the words “Come Home, America!” you’re right there with him cheering and pleading for the rest of the country to adopt these same goals. It’s basically a summary of his platform with a repetitious advertisement / branding of his campaign slogan all in one. This way, after you’ve heard the speech, your head is buzzing with the key topics of his platform and his campaign slogan all at once. It wouldn’t work if it were at the beginning or midway point in the speech the way most politicians use their choruses. It wouldn’t work if he did not say the words with such conviction in his voice. This is a man who, agree with him or not, cares very deeply about these bold new policies and has the foresight to understand how badly needed they are. It’s an absolutely profound moment that completely redefined what I expect from my elected officials ever since. It’s the moment that stayed with me for days after I’d first seen it, wondering how this man never got elected. It’s the moment that made me fall in love with George McGovern.
Overall, this speech is an absolute tour-de-force. It is literally a point by point guide for how to write a great speech in modern politics. Leave out the cliché Declaration/Constitution history lesson we’ve all learned (and re-learned) in school. Leave out the obnoxious platitudes (“In a few months, America is going to make a choice” / ”something something FREEDOM”) and leave out the dime a dozen Washington quotes. Quote someone lesser acknowledged but still important, like Wilson. Instead of the lame family shout-outs, give your primary opponents their genuine accolades and heal any lingering wounds going forward. Spend time giving a detailed and passionate rundown of your principles. Only use the one chorus (looking at you, Mondale) and only repeat it 4 times not 40 (looking at you, Humphrey.) Use it at the end and use it as branding. Don’t be afraid to criticize your opponent but don’t go over the top or too harsh because it makes you and the speech seem vacuous (looking at you, Hillary). Why and how this isn’t on American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century I’ll never understand.
You may think I’m being so ridiculously positive about this speech due to my self-described admiration of the candidate giving it. But I remind you that it was this speech that made me fall in love with McGovern, not the other way around. It’s a damn shame more people don’t know about it. Even among political junkies like myself it’s only remembered for the ungodly hour it was delivered, rather than its brilliant use of rhetoric and strong oration. You could replace the Nixon references with Trump/Pence, the Vietnam references with the Middle East as well as the primary opponents’ names and deliver this exact same speech today—it’s still that relevant. This is the only 20th Century convention speech I feel confident saying that for. I think the message would resonate a lot better today after Americans have suffered through more wars, stagnant wages and crumbling infrastructure (all of which began to get bad in the late ’70s). We should have listened to George McGovern; he was the hero America needed but not the one we deserved.