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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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By DAVID S. BRODER Washington Post Writers Group
Published July 20, 2007
WASHINGTON - The gathering last weekend to celebrate George McGovern's 85th birthday was more than a salute to a respected elder for his decades of work as a public official and a private citizen to end hunger in the world.
Bob Dole, who has joined with him in that cause since they were both senators, spoke warmly of the friendship that crossed party lines and bridged years of disagreement on other issues. But most of the celebrants were there for another reason. They were veterans of McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, reunited after 35 years to mark one of the great lost causes of American politics.
McGovern was swamped by Richard Nixon in that race, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. As he noted ruefully in his reminiscences Saturday, he decided to take a nap while awaiting returns and left the instruction to "wake me when we know the outcome. It turned out to be a very short nap."
But that campaign has had long-term consequences. As evidenced by the turnout for this reunion, McGovern's race attracted and trained a whole generation of young people who are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party today.
Youthful rebels then, but gray-haired now, they still embody the two forces that define the Democratic Party - an insistence on openness and reform, and a commitment to peace. As Bill Clinton, one of the thousands who got his first national experience as a McGovern volunteer, put it in his message to the gathering, they are all "McGovern's heirs."
Gary Hart, who was McGovern's campaign manager, made the bold statement that McGovern had "saved the Democratic Party" by forcing open the doors of a closed system and allowing those outsiders - the anti-Vietnam War amateurs - to come in.
At the time, it certainly didn't look like salvation to party leaders, who saw the Democrats losing seat after seat in the McGovern debacle. But the energy and talent McGovern enlisted have proved to be the party's salvation in later decades. Without the reforms McGovern forced back then - including guaranteed representation for women and minorities in the convention hall - it is impossible to imagine that this year, the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination would be Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Though no one at this mostly partisan Democratic gathering noted the point, the parallel to the McGovern experience on the Republican side can be found in the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign. Goldwater was a landslide loser to Lyndon Johnson, but he too brought a whole set of talented newcomers into national politics, among them Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Unsuccessful campaigns can have that long-term benefit for their party, but only if that losing candidate identifies himself with causes much larger than himself. For McGovern, the causes were peace abroad and reform of the Democratic Party at home. For Goldwater, it was conservatism in its contemporary definition - low taxes, strong defense and skepticism about government.
It was the idealism of their campaigns - and their willingness to defy the pollsters and political odds - that endeared them to their young followers. And their vindication came with the success those followers achieved.
There's a lesson in this for those running for president today. There is more than one way to measure a successful campaign. Pragmatism - trimming positions to fit the current political winds - can yield short-term victories. But sticking to principle can build a legacy for a generation.
That may be a consolation for John McCain, who is the most stubbornly principled person in the Republican field. He is being punished now for saying what he believes about Iraq and immigration, among other things. But the examples of Goldwater and McGovern tell us that battle-tested veterans who take the abuse but don't abandon their beliefs can inspire a movement of enduring importance.