But have I ever wanted to trade places with him? Not for one minute. Were the voters of the 49 states who went for Nixon wiser than the people of our national capital and Massachusetts who voted for me? Not in my book.
These days, my name is back in the news. I'm being held up as some kind of sober warning to Democratic candidates. Don't be another George McGovern, the warning goes. Don't be too liberal. Don't be too outspoken. Watch what you say and play to the middle, so that you don't end up losing 49 states, too.
It may not surprise you that I regard this as political baloney. I said exactly what I believed in 1972. I told the truth while my opponent betrayed the American public and violated the law repeatedly, engaging in campaign finance dishonesty and illegal wiretapping, invading the confidential files of a doctor, urging the CIA to halt an FBI investigation -- to say nothing of running unethical and unlimited campaign advertising that distorted my positions on major issues. These kinds of tactics got him elected --but they also made him the only president in our history forced to resign in disgrace.
I was criticized in my campaign for selecting as my running mate Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, who turned out to have had a record of mental illness. I asked him -- perhaps mistakenly, I now believe --to step aside. But the man Nixon selected in 1968 and 1972 as his vice president was forced to resign after the 1972 election to avoid a conviction for felonious conduct in his high office. I'll take Tom Eagleton, or his replacement, Sargent Shriver, anytime over Spiro Agnew.
The point I'm making is that we should not evaluate a presidential campaign entirely by who gets the most votes. The man who inspired me to enter politics was Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. As the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952, he began his campaign with two sentences that I will never forget and that I hope my fellow politicians will heed: "Let's talk sense to the American people" and "Better to lose the election than to mislead the people." He lost in 1952 and again in 1956, but I've never met a Stevenson voter who regretted his or her vote. Nor do I know of a single McGovern voter who regrets his or her vote of '72. If they do, they haven't told me.
Of course, we all like to win -- especially against great odds. And I think it's extremely important for the Democrats to win in 2004. But not at the price of their souls. I won a lot of elections in my life, many of them as a liberal in conservative South Dakota, by saying what I believed. As a junior senator from a sparsely settled farm state, I won the presidential nomination in a field of 17 tough contenders, including Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie and Henry Jackson. I began with these words: "I make one pledge above all others: to seek and speak the truth."
The transcendent issue of that time was the tragically mistaken American war in Vietnam. The struggle killed 58,000 brave young Americans and wounded 300,000. It was slowly eating away at the moral, economic and political fiber of the nation. Unlike World War II, in which I fought as a combat bomber pilot, the war in Vietnam was unnecessary.
Nixon had said in seeking the presidency in 1968 that he had a secret plan for ending the war. But once in office, he continued the war for four more years, during which time we suffered the loss of 40% of the Americans who died in that war. I believe that despite my loss, my campaign in 1972 made clear to the public, Congress and the world that nearly 30 million Americans wanted a president who would end the war immediately. No war could have continued long after that election.
I wish that in today's political dialogue we had more politicians willing to say what they honestly believe is best for the nation rather than going along with the polls and the focus groups and the conventional wisdom. I thank God for Sen. Robert Byrd, who has courageously challenged the Bush administration's unconstitutional invasion of Iraq -- a country that has done no harm to us, poses no threat to us and which had nothing to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. More senators should have stood up against this foolish war that is needlessly taking American lives.
I also wish more of our elected officials would raise hard questions about the Patriot Act, which really ought to be called the Anti-Bill of Rights Act. Some searching questions should also be directed to the so-called Homeland Security Act, which has created an enormous, costly bureaucracy that will add little to our security while increasing taxes and red tape.
With the 2004 race about to begin in earnest, I would only add: Give me a presidential candidate who speaks the truth as he sees it and I'll show you a candidate whose campaign, win or lose, will be good for the nation.
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