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Alexandra Marshall

Singing the same optimistic tune

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Alexandra Marshall
February 17, 2008

I RECENTLY discovered among my old record albums the equivalent, for the election of 1972, of today's Internet outreach to young voters. The object, a vinyl disk the size of a 45 rpm record, has the look of a hit single, but it's a political pitch. The candidate's name is on the label above the title "Together We Can Win."

Before playing it, I looked at the accompanying fund-raising letter from the campaign director, Gary Hart, an invitation to join a committee of 10,000 by getting 10 friends to listen and contribute $10 each - or 20 friends to contribute $5 each - "to mount the all-out effort" to win. Since I had little memory of the recording after these three dozen years, it was like coming upon an old friend to hear again the pristine cadences of Senator George McGovern's heartland voice summoning voters to reverse the policies of the Nixon administration.

"This country is in serious trouble," McGovern begins, "and we are not doing enough about it. I seek the presidency of the United States because I can no longer tolerate the neglect of the American promise. I'm certain you feel the same way. I'm confident that if you'll join forces with me, we can turn this country around and get it headed in the right direction again."

McGovern's argument is not just against the Vietnam War but against what he calls Vietnam thinking. "It is this Cold War paranoia, this obsessive drive towards overkill, which has distorted our economy, ravaged our cities, and alienated so many of our people. . . . If we are truly to reorder our national priorities and restore sanity to our national life, we must have a president whose thinking is completely free of the vestiges of the Cold War. I invite the American people to put my candidacy to this test. I have openly expressed my criticism about Vietnam from the beginning. I can enter the White House prepared to make a clean break."

Sound familiar? Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama defines himself by saying he represents "not change as a slogan, not change as a bumper sticker, but change we can believe in." And in his most recent primary sweep victory speech, Obama specifies by saying, "We need to end the mind-set that got us into war."

A resonant call like his can generate the power to make it seem as if this change has already been achieved, while it is precisely this sense of accomplishment among primary voters that feels all too familiar. My generation of McGovern supporters knew nobody who wasn't voting for him - nobody but our parents - and because of how wrong we were, and given the immense consequences to our country as a result of that election loss, there is an even greater urgency to succeed this time.

Like McGovern's "Together We Can Win," the "Yes We Can" of Obama's campaign has a winning optimism. There is also a parallel to McGovern's "You and I are tired of apologizing for our country. We want to be proud of America once again. But the time has come to look to the real sources of pride . . . in the quality of our justice, the breadth of our brotherhood, the depth of our compassion, and the fulfillment of our individual destinies."

In acknowledging the question "Does he really have a chance?" McGovern's answer is that "it is the nature of the new politics that one concerned active citizen has the strength of a hundred who take no active support and who often don't even vote." But the trouble was - and is - that our country's recurrent passion for change has the power to lull voters into believing that this reversal we seek will be achieved simply by virtue of a mounting heartfelt consensus.

A scolding I-told-you-so is uncreative, yet as we listen to the reverberating message of Obama, we must keep firmly in mind the consequences of that crushing 1972 election loss: the perpetuation of the war in Vietnam for nearly three more years, and of the Vietnam thinking - the Cold War thinking - that has prevailed even until today.

I wish I could boast that I did my part in 1972, but on the reverse of Gary Hart's letter is the blank form that I never returned to the McGovern for President Committee with the names of my 10 or 20 friends. I'm also ashamed to admit that I still have the empty envelope that ought to have contained those 10 or 20 $5 and $10 bills.

Alexandra Marshall is a novelist whose most recent book is "The Court of Common Pleas."

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