Judge Brendan Babish wonders: If this is victory, what would it have been if McGovern had actually won the election?
For once in American politics, sunshine and light beat shadows and fog.
Hmmm, I may be wrong, but I seem to remember Richard Nixon, who ran on the "Shadows and Fog" platform in 1972, actually beat challenger George McGovern and his "Sunshine and Light" movement. In fact, I seem to remember it as the second worst electoral drubbing in history, with McGovern winning only one state (Massachusetts) and one district (Washington, D.C.). So how is it that sunshine and light beat shadows and fog?
After watching One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern my guess is that McGovern's team won because they brought young, previously disenfranchised youth into the political process. To hear his campaign staffers tell it, before McGovern the Democratic Party was made up of a fragile coalition of blue-collar union workers and Southern bigots. So of course, as the party transitioned to more progressive stances (anti-war, pro-choice, pro-civil and gay rights), there was bound to be a thumping by Nixon. But McGovern never compromised his beliefs. He ran the cleanest presidential campaign in modern history (against one of this century's shadiest national politicians).
For those who aren't old enough to remember, or don't follow politics, George McGovern was a senator from South Dakota who ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972. The Vietnam War was still raging, with several thousand American soldiers dying that year alone (not to mention the tens of thousands of Vietnamese). Nixon, who was running for re-election, claimed that pulling out prematurely would cause unrest in the region and all of Asia might turn Communist. McGovern saw only chaos and senseless destruction and vowed to stop the war on his first day in office. (If you see parallels between the Vietnam War and our current imbroglio in the Middle East you wouldn't be the first). Due to his far left policies, as well as a series of campaign snafus, McGovern captured only 38 percent of the vote to Nixon's 60 percent.
What is clearly not imparted in that information is that McGovern was a good man. He always carried himself with dignity and expressed his opinions with clarity and intelligence. Even now, in interviews granted for this documentary, he exudes decentness that is almost entirely absent from current political discourse. When he speaks, there aren't of those nagging traces of condescension or dishonesty. When people wonder, as they often do, what would happen if a candidate spoke his or her mind and never compromised for special interest groups, they often speak in reverential terms, as if this politician were a mythical creature, not unlike a unicorn. Yet George McGovern may very well have been that politician. Or, at least, he was as close as either major party has nominated for the presidency in the past half-century.
At this point I must admit, if it is not already obvious, that I am a blue-state kind of guy. I feel this must be mentioned because One Bright Shining Moment will not be appreciated by anyone who thinks George W. Bush is an honest and integral politician. I don't want to discourage Republicans from seeing this film, because if nothing else it is worthwhile for educational purposes, but there are many inflammatory comments made by McGovern's supporters. I enjoyed most of them, but can still recognize their incendiary nature.
My favorite pronouncement came from author Gore Vidal, who was discussing the phenomenon of anyone who makes under $25,000 a year voting Republican: "I was brought up in the ruling class. They hate the people," he says. He then goes on to describe how, if the Bush family was given sodium pentothal and asked about their feelings for America's lower class, you would hear profanity that would make a sailor blush.
One of the film's great strengths is its engaging series of talking heads. In addition to Vidal, we get Warren Beatty, Gloria Steinem, Gary Hart, several impassioned McGovern campaign staffers and McGovern himself (who is, as of this writing, still alive). Together they do a thorough job imparting the passion of the anti-war movement in the 1970s. But one of the film's few faults is its complete lack of representation from the "silent majority" of Americans who supported the Vietnam War at the time. To fully understand the 1972 election, it would have been beneficial to hear from at least one person who didn't think Nixon should have been arrested for war crimes.
At the end of the film, Gloria Steinem probably sums up the McGovern campaign best. While discussing his historic loss to Nixon, she mentions that whenever former campaign staffers get back together they always look back on 1972 with great pride. She mentions, probably accurately, that Nixon's campaign staff doesn't do that. And I would bet that the Kerry, Gore, and Dukakis campaigns don't enjoy reminiscing that much either. So maybe there was something special about the Summer of George McGovern after all.
The video on One Bright Shining Moment is often grainy, and the sound is occasionally muted, but this is largely due to most of the source material being well over 30 years old. Considering the time period the film chronicles, First Run Features probably did about as good a job as could be expected. There are also some substantive extras, which is somewhat rare for a documentary DVD. The deleted scenes are the most interesting, as they comprise about an extra half hour of background on the campaign. The interview with Amy Goodman, who narrates the movie, is an attempt to tie in McGovern's political philosophy with the current left-wing resistance to the Bush Administration. All in all, this DVD presents a comprehensive portrait of the beginning of the liberal activist movement in American politics. It is highly recommended for those who voted for McGovern as well as any burgeoning peaceniks that are too young to remember the Vietnam War.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Short Film "Vietnam Storyteller"
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