When heroes from our past pass on, sometimes it seems like there’s a rush to the exit doors. This weekend and today, both George McGovern and Russell Means passed through that door. Both of these heroes of the Seventies lived and died in South Dakota.
George McGovern, the peace candidate from South Dakota, a former Congressman and Senator from that state, who won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1972, died early Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.
And Russell Means, a former American Indian Movement activist who helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee, reveled in stirring up attention and appeared in several Hollywood films, died early Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D. He was 72 years old and had fought throat cancer.
Most will probably remember George McGovern as the guy who was smashed by Richard Nixon in the 1972 Presidential election. And he did lose that race mightily – I recall he took Massachusetts. Mainstream dems never forgave him and never forgave the “peace” wing of the Democratic Party for his defeat.
In fact, the perception that the “doves” had taken over the Party spurred more centrist Democrats to form what was called the Democratic Leadership Council – as an explicit alternative to the more liberal wing of the organization. Bill Clinton would later emerge out of that reconfiguration of the Democrats.
Yet McGovern – more than any other national politician – symbolized the peace movement with his long-standing opposition to that conflict; he carried the anti-war banner proudly – and even though he lacked a certain charisma and personal power needed to run successfully on the national scale – he and his supporters moved a major political power to the left in their opposition to the murder and mayhem occurring in Vietnam in our name.
Liberal and anti-war dems had sworn to get even after the 1968 debacle with Hubert Humphrey, a pro-war candidate who lost to pro-war Nixon in the election that year. After the police riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention and after Humphrey’s people ramrodded his nomination through, the Democratic Party became dangerously split. Humphrey had been a “big-time liberal” on domestic policies – much like his mentor, LBJ – but he was a hawk on the Vietnam war, a war that was splitting the country.
Because of opposition to the war, the year 1970 witnessed a near break-down of America – when during that Spring – c0llege campuses had exploded in opposition to the killing, sending National Guard troops and state police onto many of those higher-ed school campuses, such as Kent State and Jackson State, where students were murdered.
In a real sense, McGovern helped to heal the wounds from the war with his campaign, because he demonstrated that it wasn’t just long-haired college students who were against the war. He also won and fought many other battles in life – a staunch opponent of hunger and the disenfranchisement of the poor, he had a love for both the stark plains of South Dakota and Washington’s rough-and-tumble politics.
President Obama may, in fact, mention McGovern in the third presidential debate tonight. Obama had offered his family condolences over the weekend, which curiously, omitted the fact that McGovern was the party’s standard bearer and nominee in 1972. A commentator noted:
Given Obama’s own opposition to the war in Iraq as a candidate in 2008, it would have been natural for the president to note that McGovern also campaigned for president against an ill-advised foreign entanglement. Maybe Obama is just superstitious about reminding voters about a Democratic nominee who lost (and big-time, as Dick Cheney might say).
For many of Obama’s younger supporters, Vietnam and the ’72 election may be ancient history. But Obama also relies on superannuated baby boomers for whom McGovern remains an admired figure because he championed peace not in the abstract but in a grueling national campaign. And it isn’t just yesterday’s peaceniks who came to recognize that Vietnam was a misbegotten and bloody enterprise.
Perhaps McGovern’s 1972 campaign was doomed from the start; his handlers certainly lacked the finesse and expertise that we see too much of today in current campaigns. For instance, McGovern gave his acceptance speech late in the evening at the convention, which translated into literally a 2 a.m. time slot on the West Coast.
Russell Means is another hero from our past. Means is best remembered – other than his roles in blockbuster films – as one of the leaders and organizers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and in bringing the plight of native Americans to the forefront of the nation’s conscience.
He was instrumental in leading the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, a 71-day stand-off between Indians and government agents. The uprising sparked supportive demonstrations around the country; some Ocean Beach activists even traveled to Wounded Knee to lend direct support. Means and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks were charged in 1974 for their role in the uprising, but after a trial that lasted several months, a judge threw the charges out on grounds of government misconduct.
Means said he felt his most important accomplishment was the founding of the Republic of Lakotah and the “re-establishment of our freedom to be responsible” as a sovereign nation inside the borders of the United States. He took his quest to the United Nations in an effort to have his proposed Indian nation recognized by the international community.
Means had announced in August 2011 that he had developed inoperable throat cancer and said that was forgoing mainstream medical treatments in favor of traditional American Indian remedies.
Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Means grew up in the San Francisco area before becoming an early leader of AIM. AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans and to demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. Means said that before AIM, there had been no advocate on a national or international scale for American Indians, and that Native Americans were ashamed of their heritage. He said:
“No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry. And there was a plethora of dozens if not hundreds of athletic teams that in essence were insulting us, from grade schools to college. That’s all changed.”
The movement eventually faded away, the result of Native Americans becoming self-aware and self-determined, Means said. Some have called Means the most important Indian leader since Sitting Bull.
Means also ran for president on the Libertarian ticket in 1988, and he also briefly served as a vice presidential candidate in 1984, joining the Larry Flynt ticket during the Hustler magazine publisher’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination. He always considered himself a Libertarian and couldn’t believe that anyone would want to call themselves either a Republican or a Democrat. “It’s just unconscionable that America has become so stupid,” he said.
For these libertarian tendencies, Means drew criticism from the left, as some believed he was straying from his earlier stances as a militant Indian leader.
Mean’s acting career had its biggest moment in 1992 when he portrayed Chingachgook alongside Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans.” He also appeared in the 1994 film “Natural Born Killers,” voiced Chief Powhatan in the 1995 animated film “Pocahontas” and guest starred in 2004 on the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Means recounted his life in the book “Where White Men Fear to Tread.” He said he pulled no punches in his autobiography, admitting to his frailties and evils but also acknowledging his successes. “I tell the truth, and I expose myself as a weak, misguided, misdirected, dysfunctional human being I used to be,” he said.
Here is a videotaped interview with Means from a few years back:
A tribal spokeswoman called Means’ death a “great loss” for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
As we observed, Means’ death came a day after former U.S. Sen. George McGovern died. During the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973, McGovern had traveled there with then-U.S. Sen. James Abourezk during the takeover to try to negotiate an end.
On Monday, Abourezk said:
“I’ve lost two good friends in a matter of two to three days. I don’t pretend to understand it.”