Reclaiming American idealism
As I lived through the nightmare of the election campaign just past, I often found myself dreaming of another American world entirely. Anything but this one.
In that spirit, I also found myself looking at a photo of my fourth-grade class, vintage 1972. Tacked to the wall behind our heads was a collage, a tapestry of sorts that I could make out fairly clearly. It evoked the promise and the chaos of a turbulent year so long ago. The promise lay in a segment that read “peace” and included a green ecology flag, a black baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, who had died that year), and a clenched fist inside the outline of the symbol for female (standing in for the new feminism of that moment and the push for equal rights for women).
Representing the chaos of that era were images of B-52s dropping bombs in Vietnam (a war that was still ongoing) and a demonstration for racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace (probably because he had been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt that May). A rocket labeled “USA” reminded me that this country was then still launching triumphant Apollo missions to the moon.
How far we’ve come in not quite half a century! In 2020, “peace” isn’t even a word in the American political dictionary; despite Greta Thunberg, a growing climate-change movement, and Joe Biden’s two-trillion-dollar climate plan, ecology was largely a foreign concept in the election just past as both political parties embraced fracking and fossil fuels (even if Biden’s embrace was less tight); Major League Baseball has actually suffered a decline in African-American players in recent years; and the quest for women’s equality remains distinctly unfulfilled.
Bombing continues, of course, though those bombs and missiles are now aimed mostly at various Islamist insurgencies rather than communist ones, and it’s often done by drones, not B-52s, although those venerable planes are still used to threaten Moscow and Beijing with nuclear carnage. George Wallace has, of course, been replaced by Donald Trump, a racist who turned President Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of my grade school years into a national presidential victory in 2016 and who, as president, regularly nodded in the direction ofwhite supremacists.
Progress, anyone? Indeed, that class photo of mine even featured the flag of China, a reminder that Nixon had broken new ground that very year by traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and de-escalate the Cold War tensions of the era. Nowadays, Americans only hear that China is a military and economic threat; that Joe Biden and some Democrats are allegedly far too China-friendly (they aren’t); and that Covid-19 (aka the “Wuhan Flu” or “Kung Flu”) was — at least to Donald Trump and his followers — a plague sent by the Chinese to kill us.
Another symbol from that tapestry, a chess piece, reminded me that in 1972 we witnessed the famous Cold War meeting between the youthful, brilliant, if mercurial Bobby Fischer and Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in a match that evoked all the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War. Inspired by Fischer, I started playing the game myself and became a card-carrying member of the U.S. Chess Federation until I realized my talent was limited indeed.
The year 1972 ended with Republican Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over Democratic Senator George McGovern, who carried only my home state of Massachusetts. After Nixon’s landslide victory, I remember bumper stickers that said: “Don’t blame me for Nixon, I’m from Massachusetts.”
Eighteen years later, in 1990, I would briefly meet the former senator. He was attending a history symposium on the Vietnam War at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, as a young Air Force captain, I chased down a book for him in the Academy’s library. I don’t think I knew then of McGovern’s stellar combat record in World War II. A skilled pilot, he had flown 35 combat missions in a B-24 bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for, at one point, successfully landing a plane heavily damaged by enemy fire and saving his crew. Nixon, who had served in the Navy during that war, never saw combat. But he did see lots of time at the poker table, winning a tidy sum of money, which he would funnel into his first political campaign.
Like so many combat veterans of the “greatest generation,” McGovern never bragged about his wartime exploits. Over the years, however, that sensible, honorable, courageous American patriot became far too strongly associated with peace, love, and understanding. A staunch defender of civil rights, a believer in progressive government, a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, he would find himself smeared by Republicans as weak, almost cowardly, on military matters and an anti-capitalist (the rough equivalent today of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders).
Apparently, this country couldn’t then and still can’t accept any major-party candidate who doesn’t believe in a colossal military establishment and a government that serves business and industry first and foremost or else our choice in 2020 wouldn’t have been Trump-Pence versus Biden-Harris.
Channeling Lloyd Bentsen
As I began writing this piece in late October, I didn’t yet know that Joe Biden would indeed win the most embattled election of our lifetime. What I did know was that the country that once produced (and then rejected) thoughtful patriots like George McGovern was in serious decline. Most Americans desperately want change, so the pollsters tell us, whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or socialists. Both election campaigns, however, essentially promised us little but their own versions of the status quo, however bizarre Donald Trump’s may have been.
In truth, Trump didn’t even bother to present a plan for anything, including bringing the pandemic under control. He just promised four more years of Keeping America Trumpish Again with yet another capital gains tax cut thrown in. Biden ran on a revival of Barack Obama’s legacy with the “hope and change” idealism largely left out. Faced with such a choice in an increasingly desperate country, with spiking Covid-19 cases in state after state and hospitals increasingly overwhelmed, too many of us sought relief in opioids or gun purchases, bad habits like fatty foods and lack of exercise, and wanton carelessness with regard to the most obvious pandemic safety measures.
Since the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and especially since September 11, 2001, it’s amazing what Americans have come to accept as normal. Forget about peace, love, and understanding. What we now see on America’s streets aren’t antiwar protesters or even beat cops, but Robocops armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry committing indefensible acts of violence. Extremist “militias” like the Proud Boys are celebrated (by some) as “patriots.” Ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories are taken all too seriously with political candidates on the Republican side of the aisle lining up to endorse them.
Even six-figure death tolls from a raging pandemic were normalized as President Trump barnstormed the country, applauding himself to maskless crowds at super-spreader rallies for keeping Covid-19 deaths under the mythical figure of 2.2 million. Meanwhile, the rest of us found nothing to celebrate in what — in Vietnam terms — could be thought of as a new body count, this time right here in the homeland.
And speaking of potential future body counts, consider again the Proud Boys whom our president in that first presidential debate asked to “stand back and stand by.” Obviously not a militia, they might better be described as a gang. Close your eyes and imagine that all the Proud Boys were black. What would they be called then by those on the right? A menace, to say the least, and probably far worse.
A real militia would, of course, be under local, state, or federal authority with a chain of command and a code of discipline, not just a bunch of alienated guys playing at military dress-up and spoiling for a fight. Yet too many Americans see them through a militarized lens, applauding those “boys” as they wave blue-line pro-police flags and shout “all lives matter.” Whatever flags they may wrap themselves in, they are, in truth, nothing more than nationalist bully boys.
Groups like the Proud Boys are only the most extreme example of the “patriotic” poseurs, parades, and pageantry in the U.S.A. of 2020. And collectively all of it, including our lost and embattled president, add up to a red-white-and-blue distraction (and what a distraction it’s been!) from an essential reality: that America is in serious trouble — and you can take that “America” to mean ordinary people working hard to make a living (or not working at all right now), desperate to maintain roofs over their heads and feed their kids.
It’s a distraction as well from the reality that America hasn’t decisively won a war since the time George McGovern flew all those combat missions in a B-24. It’s a distraction from some ordinary Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake being not just manipulated and exploited, but murdered, hence the need for a Black Lives Matter movement to begin with. It’s a distraction from the fact that we don’t even debate gargantuan national security budgets that now swell annually above a trillion dollars, while no one in a position of power blinks.
Today’s never-ending wars and rumors of more to come remind me that George McGovern was not only against the Vietnam conflict, but the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Joe Biden, meanwhile, voted for the Iraq War, which Donald Trump also spoke in favor of, then, only to campaign on ending this country’s wars in 2016, even if by 2020 he hadn’t done so — though he had set up a new military service, the Space Force. Feeling the need to sharpen his own pro-war bona fides, Biden recently said he’d raise “defense” spending over and above what even Trump wanted.
If you’ll indulge my fantasy self for a moment, I’d like to channel Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee who, in a debate with his Republican opposite Dan Quayle, dismissed him as “no Jack Kennedy.” In that same spirit, I’d like to say this to both Trump and Biden in the wake of the recent Covid-19 nightmare of a campaign: “I met George McGovern. George McGovern, in a different reality, could have been my friend. You, Joe and Donald, are no George McGovern.”
Prior military service is not essential to being president and commander-in-chief, but whose finger would you rather have on America’s nuclear button: that of Trump, who dodged the draft with heel spurs; Biden, who dodged the draft with asthma; or a leader like McGovern, who served heroically in combat, a leader who was willing to look for peaceful paths because he knew so intimately the blood-spattered ones of war?
A historical tapestry for fourth graders as 2020 ends
What about a class photo for fourth graders today? What collage of images would be behind their heads to represent the promise and chaos of our days? Surely, Covid-19 would be represented, perhaps by a mountain of body bags in portable morgues. Surely, a “Blue Lives Matter” flag would be there canceling out a Black Lives Matter flag. Surely, a drone launching Hellfire missiles, perhaps in Somalia or Yemen or some other distant front in America’s endless war of (not on) terror, would make an appearance.
And here are some others: surely, the flag of China, this time representing the growing tensions, not rapprochement, between the two great powers; surely, a Trump super-spreader rally filled with the unmasked expressing what I like to think of as the all-too-American “ideal” of “live free and die”; surely, a vast firenado rising from California and the West, joined perhaps by a hurricane flag to represent another record-breaking year of such storms, especially on the Gulf Coast; surely, some peaceful protesters being maced or tased or assaulted by heavily armed and unidentified federal agents just because they cared about the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
And I suppose we could add something about sports into that collage, maybe an image of football players in empty stadiums, kneeling as one for racial equality. Look, sports used to unite us across race and class lines, but in his woebegone presidency, Donald Trump, among others, used sports only to divide us. Complex racial relations and legacies have been reduced to slogans, Black Lives Matter versus blue lives matter, but what’s ended up being black and blue is America. We’ve beaten ourselves to a pulp and it’s the fight promoters, Donald Trump above all, who have profited most. If we are to make any racial progress in America, that kind of self-inflicted bludgeoning has to end.
And what would be missing from the 2020 collage that was in my 1972 one? Notably, clear references to peace, ecology, and equal rights for women. Assuming that, on January 20th, Joe Biden really does take his place in the Oval Office, despite the angriest and most vengeful man in the world sitting there now, those three issues would be an ideal place for him to start in his first 100 days as president (along, of course, with creating a genuine plan to curb Covid-19): (1) seek peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere by ending America’s disastrous wars; (2) put the planet first and act to abate climate change and preserve all living things; (3) revive the Equal Rights Amendment and treat women with dignity, respect, and justice.
One final image from my fourth-grade collage: an elephant is shown on top of a somewhat flattened donkey. It was meant, of course, to capture Richard Nixon’s resounding victory over George McGovern in 1972. Yet, even with Joe Biden’s victory last week, can we say with any confidence that the donkey is now on top? Certainly not the one of McGovern’s day, given that Biden has already been talking about austerity at home and even higher military spending.
Sadly, it’s long past time to reclaim American idealism and take a stand for a lot less war and a lot more help for the most vulnerable among us, including the very planet itself. How sad that we don’t have a leader like George McGovern in the White House as a daunting new year looms.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.