Archive for Saturday, September 8, 2001

America can meet the real McGovern

September 8, 2001


In 1970, I managed the successful Ohio gubernatorial campaign of Democrat John Gilligan. He was a college English professor and an unapologetic liberal in Cincinnati the only major American city FDR never carried where he was elected to the city council. Two years earlier, Jack Gilligan had been a principal author of the anti-Vietnam War "peace plank" at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

More than 20 years before that, Gilligan had been a young Navy lieutenant on the deck of a U.S. destroyer in the Pacific when a Japanese kamikaze plane crashed into the smokestack. For his selfless leadership and lifesaving heroism, Gilligan was awarded the Silver Star.

In 1970, anticipating opposition sneers that the liberal Professor Gilligan must be a little limp of wrist or "soft" on communism, our campaign broadcast a TV spot, crafted by media whiz David Garth, that featured the plainspoken Slim Heinzleman, a butcher by trade, who had been a sailor under Gilligan's command on the destroyer on that fateful day. Speaking directly into the camera, Heinzleman gave Gilligan credit for saving lives and the ship, and concluded with, "That's the kind of tough leadership we could use in Columbus today."

Two years later, after the presidential campaign of my candidate, the late Sen. Edmund Muskie, ended, I served in the fall of 1972 as political director traveling with Sargent Shriver, the running mate of the Democratic presidential nominee Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

Aware that McGovern had been at 22 a decorated Army Air Force pilot who had flown 35 combat missions (the maximum number allowed), I urged the McGovern managers to film a couple of members of the flight crew telling how terrified they were the day McGovern, with two of his plane's four engines knocked out, somehow managed through skill and strength an emergency landing of his B-24 (which required a 5,000 foot landing strip) on a 2,200 foot runway on an island in the Adriatic.

Of course, no such spot ever saw the light of day. Later, I was told that a B-24 spot would have "complicated" or "stepped on" the campaign's message of the South Dakota senator as the candidate most critical of bombing in Vietnam. I was furious at the sheer stupidity, the craven surrender of the values of patriotism and military valor to Richard M. Nixon, whose own service time was largely spent profitably playing poker.

But now historian Stephen Ambrose, who has moved the nation with his compelling accounts of the country's settling and of the ordinary Americans whose extraordinary personal sacrifice and bravery won WW II, has written "The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45." This is 30 years late the story of George McGovern, by all evidence a superb pilot and an unflappable leader who always thought first of his crew.

Even though he did not fly the same plane twice, McGovern's B-24 was always called the "Dakota Queen," after his young home state bride Eleanor, to whom he has now been married for 57 years. That plane, on the 10-hour flights during which German anti-aircraft flak could turn the night sky as bright as noon, was cramped, uncomfortable and cold with temperatures sometimes falling to 50 degrees below zero. The crew had to wear uncomfortable rubber oxygen masks. If the plane, which had the feel of a big truck, was hit, it burned like a bonfire. Exhaustion and terror were the B-24 crews' uninvited but constant companions.

What comes through again in this Ambrose book is these remarkable young Americans, strangers only yesterday, who almost overnight forged a unit where self-sacrifice is the norm and concern for your comrades in combat is paramount.

Previously, Ambrose has called George McGovern "one of the greatest patriots I know." He's expressed the hope that people will now understand, "You don't necessarily have to be a hawk to be patriotic." Ambrose's mission remains, "I want young people in America ... to understand that freedom does not come free." After reading "The Wild Blue," the conservative poet laureate columnist Robert Novak observed: "I can never think of George McGovern again in the same way. Of course he was a genuine hero. He was a great leader."

For working in that 1972 campaign, I was called a "McGovernite." That's OK as long as those doing the calling, the Newt Gingriches, the Dick Armeys and the Phil Gramms and the Trent Lotts and the Pat Buchanans and the Tom DeLays none of whom, unlike the heroic George McGovern, ever answered his nation's call to service will agree to call themselves a "Nixonite."

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