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Jan. 05, 2007

McGovern for Ford and Dole



Permit me one more column, please, on the greater meaning in Gerald Ford's passing. It's George McGovern's fault.

Larry King was remembering Ford with one of those panels of guests via satellite. CNN beamed up McGovern, the modern liberal lightning rod.

King asked forgettable questions to which McGovern seemed to pay appropriately scant attention. It seemed George had something to say regardless of what was asked.

McGovern related that, in 1976, a mere four years after he had been the Nixon-creamed Democratic presidential nominee, he voted for Ford for president over his own party's nominee, Jimmy Carter.

As viewers could hear gasps from other guests (Bob Schiefer, David Gergen, Bob Woodward), McGovern told of having decided to admit this vote to his family at the Thanksgiving table that year.

He said that his wife and five kids responded by admitting they'd done the same thing.

That is to say that Republican Gerald Ford beat Democrat Jimmy Carter, 7-zip, in the family of the man who provided the very modern definition of Democratic liberalism.

McGovern explained that he hadn't known Carter well and that Ford provided him a greater sense of comfort about national stewardship. So, he said, he voted not only for Ford, but for Ford's running mate that year, "my good Republican friend, Bob Dole."

McGovern for Dole: Think about that one for a minute. Ponder, then, if you possibly can, that Al Gore could have voted for Dick Cheney, or Dole for John Edwards, or Jack Kemp for John Kerry, or Michael Dukakis for Dan Quayle.

It's out of the question.

This is a generational thing, and not a positive trend.

McGovern, Ford, Dole -- they hailed from what Ford's designated eulogist, Tom Brokaw, famously called America's Greatest Generation, one with the epic and uncommonly galvanizing shared experience of World War II, a bona fide threat to freedom.

Dole was a decorated hero; McGovern, his Vietnam doveness aside, a decorated bomber pilot. Ford was in the Navy during World War II, and served on a ship that engaged in Pacific combat.

Hitler was a clear and present enemy, not an optional or debatable one. Mass destruction wasn't a contrived reason for war. Mass human destruction was taking place before the world's very eyes.

From that emerged a class of American politicians who came home to enter public service because they found it noble and purposeful. Men emerged who cared for each other personally and profoundly and who found their partisan disagreements mostly in the margins and in underlying heritage or philosophy.

Difference of opinion wasn't personally defining. There were greater and transcendent bonds.

Ford, Dole and McGovern could be friends and work together even as they parted company over something so basic as the war in Vietnam. They shared a pre-existing something that was far deeper than a major difference of opinion.

All of that is now lost to a baby boom generation that defined its formative politics in the 1960s and early 1970s by civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate and abortion -- by dividing, not unifying, experiences. It based its differences on morality and lifestyle, which were necessarily personal, even to the point of meanness, bitterness, demonizing and dysfunctional polarization.

Patriotism was universally accepted before; it gets questioned now. Personal morality was accepted before; judgments about it lead to impeachment now. War service was a powerfully understated kinship before; it gets minimized and attacked now.

For America's sake, the baby boom generation needs to go down in American political history as an aberration, not a trend. We need to bring back the classic Ford.

A postscript: McGovern assured King that he voted for Carter in 1980 against Reagan. He said it all served to tell the story of his political life, opposing Carter when he won and favoring him when he lost.

We could use a little more of the self-effacing politician, too.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is

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