Book Review: The Rise of a Prairie Statesman
by Thomas J. Knock
Princeton University Press, 2016
Considering the incredibly long and deep shadow George McGovern has cast over the last half-century of Democratic politics, a book like Thomas Knock’s new The Rise of a Prairie Statesman (the first volume in projected two-volume “Life and Times”) feels long overdue. And yet by its very nature, this first volume, which covers McGovern’s life from his boyhood in small-town South Dakota during the Great Depression to his surprising insurgent performance at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, is necessarily more the study of a man than a statesman; McGovern’s historically quixotic 1972 presidential campaign, hamstrung at the time by McGovern’s choice of deeply problematic Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate now all but lost the dolorous memory of Richard Nixon’s subsequent landslide victory, is still on the distant horizon when The Rise of a Prairie Statesman comes to an end.
McGovern led such a colorful early life, and Knock is such a skilled and easily eloquent storyteller, that readers won’t care in the slightest that this book is a 500-page first part rather than a 1000-page behemoth complete biography. In every way, this book should fail – it’s a long and extremely detailed story of an intelligent, entirely honorable politician who tried to reach the Oval Office but didn’t make it, a politician who spent his whole life urging common decency, reflection, peace, and compassion. The book should almost immediately devolve into either microfiche-supported tedium or treacly preaching. And yet, in every way, the book succeeds. This is political writing – and life-writing – of the first order.
Knock mentions the source of McGovern’s appeal at that 1968 convention, and the list will strike any watcher of the viperous 21st century American political landscape as almost impossibly quaint: “… he greatly benefited also from having the courage of his convictions, a dedicated state organization, a national standing, and a pleasing personality.” Readers watch all those factors develop and deepen over the course of the book as Knock relates McGovern’s upbringing, schooling, extreme heroism during the Second World War, and career in Congress, were he gained a measure of fame as an increasingly outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam, a subject on which he was uncomfortably far-seeing:
Even before Kennedy’s assassination, McGovern began to worry about the country’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. American resources were being used to “suppress the very liberties we went in to defend,” he said in September 1963. “The trap we have fallen into there will haunt us in every corner of the globe.” (Decades later Senator Bob Dole would remark, “I guess George knew something the rest of us didn’t.”)
All the towering figures of 20th century American politics stride across the stage of Knock’s story, from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to Nixon and the Kennedy brothers, and throughout, our author displays time and again a talent for character-illustrating quotes, as when McGovern meets with President Johnson in the Oval Office in March of 1965:
“George, you know what they [the Communists, one presumes] want?” he asked. “They want to take over the world. Vietnam is the very first point. We’re not going to let them do it.” McGovern refuted this article of faith. Ho Chi Minh was nobody’s stooge, and the Chinese and Vietnamese had hated each other for centuries, he said. Ho the nationalist might well serve as a barrier against Chinese expansion. “Goddamn it, George, don’t give me another history lesson,” Johnson once more cut in. “I’ve got a drawer full of history lessons over there from Mansfield, another professor. I don’t have time to be sitting around this desk reading history books!”
The particular strand of progressivism championed – and embodied – by McGovern took its share of body-blows during the tumultuous years covered by Knock’s final chapters, and that progressivism is today all but extinct in the power culture of contemporary Washington. This makes the first volume of Knock’s project curiously thrilling reading, just as it will make the second volume almost unbearably saddening. This is as much a testament to Knock’s gifts as a writer and historian as it is to the clear-eyed vision of George McGovern; the man has found his ideal chronicler.