American History

“Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Seneca

When someone in the public eye passes away it causes us to refurbish old memories. Such was the case when Senator George McGovern died at 90 this week, and Jacques Barzun, perhaps our last public intellectual, died at the age of 104 in San Antonio, Texas. Both men were, in their own ways, the last of a kind, the public figure who lives out his or her convictions with grace and irony right up to the end.

McGovern is often remembered as the man who lost to Richard Nixon by a landslide in the 1972 presidential election. Nixon, our most paranoid of presidents, was fearful that George Wallace would take away votes and sought to find anything he could to smear Wallace. The assassination attempt that left Wallace paralyzed took him out of the race and all but assured Nixon the victory. While he sympathized with Wallace in public Nixon privately exulted that the way was now clear. As for McGovern, Nixon’s men explored the possibility of trying to link his campaign with funding from Castro’s government. That particular move proved unnecessary: the country resoundingly rejected McGovern and his liberal politics. Nixon went on triumphantly to a second term in which he disgraced himself and the country by attempting to subvert the Constitution. He avoided impeachment only by resigning on Friday, August 9, 1974.

Nixon’s resignation speech, a rambling, self-indulgent paean to his mother and his lack of money, was picked up by radio by a group of us that day on a windy, rain-swept headland overlooking the sea in the south of Wales. At the time I remember feeling relief that the whole sordid episode was finally over and that we wouldn’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore. 

In moments like that you wonder what alternate history might have been written had McGovern miraculously won. The Democratic Party was never so aligned again with politics that was unabashedly for the rights of women, blacks, the poor, the lame, the halt, and the blind. After defeat McGovern went on to devote himself to the war against hunger in the world. Richard Nixon resurrected himself in time as an elder statesman and at his death was feted by the living presidents of the time. McGovern’s political beliefs seem almost impossibly naive by today’s “whatever” standards. Forty years of Democratic centrism has meant that the party has all but abandoned its constituency of the marginalized. 

History unreels behind us, not so much a transcript of orderly actions, but rather a confession of conflicting desires. We gather it up  occasionally, expecting a confirmation of our cherished memories. We are often rudely shocked by the distance between our present selves and our reverenced past. The passing of George McGovern, himself a scholar of American history, reminds us that there is more to life than Real Housewives and that we learn best from that which we have understood.

Jacques Barzun, in the words of the New York Times’ obituary for him, was a “distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history.” A man who resisted authoritarianism and the dominance of systems, he lived and breathed a liberal humanism that treasured reflection and gratitude for great learning. 

Barzun’s bemused and ironic sensibilities could be read as support for the status quo. In his last major work, From Dawn to Decadence, he notes that “most of what government sets out to do for the public good is resisted as soon as proposed,” and that “The upshot is a floating hostility to things as they are. . . . The hope is that getting rid of what is will by itself generate the new life.” The answer, he suggests, is neither in baptizing the past nor in embracing the new. Rather, “Our distinctive attitude toward history, our habit of arguing from it, turns events into ideas charged with power.” 

Both George McGovern and Jacques Barzun lived with the assurance that ideas matter—profoundly—and that what today seems so new and unprecedented may have already appeared in our past, either as an Angel of Light or of Darkness. What we do with our interpretations will create our futures. 

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