The death of former U.S. Sen. George W. McGovern (D-S.D.) brought forth an array of tributes, both from Republicans and Democrats. He obviously was well-liked, even by people who sharply disagreed with him on political matters.
Perhaps the gracious tributes paid to him will be a lesson that political differences, even those very acutely felt, do not mean that a person of opposing views is insincere or unpatriotic.
McGovern’s Oct. 21 death is an occasion to look at the past and at historic developments. His most memorable moment on the national stage came in 1972, when he was the Democratic candidate opposing Richard Nixon’s re-election effort. (For the record, Nixon won in a landslide. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 received a higher number of electoral votes than Nixon won.)
In 1972, abortion on demand was not yet legal everywhere, but signs were pointing to the fact that this might change. In California, Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan, later pro-life, had signed legislation permitting abortions, and attempts were under way in many other state legislatures across the country to legalize abortion. The question was to be brought forward dramatically in January 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Roe v. Wade ruling, defined as a basic legal concept in American law that the decision whether or not to abort a pregnancy lies with the woman involved.
Afterward, lines were drawn, both in public opinion and in political advocacy, but only gradually. Nixon himself was ambivalent about abortion. Records of his private conversations reveal that he thought legalized abortion would present problems but would be a good thing if the conception had resulted from an interracial relationship. His successor, President Gerald Ford, was accused of skirting the issue.
At the time, many Republicans were pro-abortion. Many Democrats were pro-life. Many did not know what to think. By the time of the 1976 election, surely by that of 1980, abortion was for many the factor defining the separation between Republicans and Democrats.
Far and away, the major issue in 1972 was the Vietnam War. McGovern opposed the war on strategic grounds, saying that it was accomplishing nothing for American security; but he also stressed moral grounds, objecting to the American bombing tactic that, he insisted, was killing innocent Vietnamese civilians as well as enemy soldiers.
Nixon maintained that the war was needed to defend this country and its Asian allies from communist aggression.
Catholics were very divided regarding the war.
Opponents of the war at times stated that the Constitution empowers no president to wage war. Only Congress can declare war. Their point lost some force, however, in the fact that objection to the Korean War a decade earlier rarely had rested on constitutional arguments. While Congress did not declare war in the Korea case, or in Vietnam, it certainly had obliquely endorsed both conflicts by resolutions and, most importantly, by funding.
Very fresh in everyone’s mind in 1972 was the civil rights movement. Equality for African-Americans had been a major issue in the elections of 1956, 1960 and 1964, and it was not forgotten in 1972.
As a result, as politics unfolded, the South shifted from being solidly Democratic, as it had been since Reconstruction, to being solidly Republican, as it is today.
Finally, this struggle for equality was transferred to other causes because equality is a concept appealing to Americans, at least in general. Now it is the umbrella used by advocates of abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues to cover their arguments.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.