Many, many years ago, in a land far away — the 1970s — I was working hard in my family medicine residency at a community hospital outside Detroit. It was, to be more precise, 1972, the year of a national general election. The Democratic nominee was George McGovern, who had won enough primaries to win the nomination. And polls suggested that he would beat Richard Nixon, the incumbent, if he had the right vice presidential nominee.
The problem became that none of the mainline, well-known Democrats was willing to be that nominee. McGovern ultimately chose Thomas Eagleton, who later had to be dropped from the ticket because his history of apparently psychotic depression had come to light. He was finally replaced on the ticket by Sargent Shriver. The campaign consisted of vicious attacks by Nixon and policy proposals by McGovern that were largely not supported by his own party. All the opinion polls suggested a major defeat for McGovern.
The night before the election, I was on call at the hospital — a terrible and demanding night followed by a difficult day. I was not able to leave until 6 p.m., at which point I went to my polling station to vote. I knew that this vote would probably make little difference, but, by golly, I was going to cast it. A long wait in line was required, and I was almost too exhausted to complete the task. But I was young enough to be stubborn. When I had finally voted, I went home, got drunk and went to bed. It seemed the only fitting response, and I certainly was not going to watch the returns.
Fast-forward two months. It was cold winter, and I was at the hospital early to have breakfast in the cafeteria with friends before we got busy. I had just sat down with my tray when I was paged overhead: “Doctor Joos, your car lights are on.” I immediately went out to turn them off. When I returned, I asked, “How could they figure out so quickly whose car it was?” One of my friends replied, with not a little sarcasm: “Who else is in the doctors’ parking lot with a Volkswagen with a ‘McGovern for President’ bumper sticker?” I had to admit the justice of the observation.
I relate this sad history of lost love to establish my bona fides as an idealist and former political naif. On this platform, I would make a few observations to the younger, idealistic members of the Democratic Party (still my own).
A) Bernie Sanders has revolutionary ideas that I wouldn’t mind seeing enacted, if I thought there were even a remote possibility of success. But I don’t see that happening at a time when the electorate is drowning in a sea of noisy fear, manufactured for them by Republican candidates. If Sanders were able to be elected president, it would be with a Republican landslide in the House and Senate. He would not be able to govern.
B) You may think that Sanders’ lack of support from the mainstream Democratic Party is not meaningful if he can win enough primaries. But remember the lesson of McGovern — it is no laughing matter if he is unable to secure the nomination of a vice presidential candidate who would actually make a contribution to the ticket.
C) This election is not just about voicing idealism-come-what-may. Nor is it just about getting through the next four years one way or another. Consider that in the next four years the Supreme Court will be very much at stake. A Republican president could, and probably would, nominate and put through a series of extremely conservative justices, whose presence on the bench would echo for decades.
D) Hillary Clinton may seem, to you, to be staid and insufficiently exciting. But we need excitement less than we need well-informed pragmatism, a depth of experience and the guts to fight back against the flailing, shifting attacks of the other party. This is not the moment to sell out all of that for an emotional, political high.
I loved George McGovern, and still think of him as a decent, brilliant man who served his state and country well. I was willing to be Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. But I do realize all these years later that the grand adventure on which he attempted to lead his party and the United States was largely responsible for empowering Richard Nixon to continue his paranoid reign.
Heidi Joos, of Minneapolis, is a physician/psychiatrist and Episcopal priest.