George McGovern, dove - and war hero

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My thoughts are going back to 30 years ago this month, when I started to write this weekly column. I was in New Hampshire, covering the Democratic presidential primary, where Maine Sen. Ed Muskie was way out in front and apparently unstoppable.

But I had heard that a senator from South Dakota by the name of George McGovern was someone to watch - that he was attracting a lot of young voters with his strong, anti-Vietnam position. I dogged McGovern's footsteps for days, and soon saw how politically appealing he was. So I wasn't surprised that, when Muskie faltered, McGovern grabbed the nomination.

At the time, I knew of McGovern's heroic wartime record piloting a B-24 bomber out of Italy with a squadron in the 15th Air Force. A new book by Stephen E. Ambrose ("The Wild Blue; the Men and Boys who flew the B-24s over Germany") focuses on McGovern and his plane, "The Dakota Queen," named after George's wife, Eleanor. In the detailed account of McGovern's 35 missions, we learn from Ambrose what a skilled pilot the 22-year-old McGovern was, how considerate he was of his crew and how they loved and respected him, and how, again and again, he hit his target and then skillfully brought the plane back, often on a wing and a prayer.

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But the voters in the presidential campaign of 1972 weren't told about what a tough warrior McGovern had been. Instead, the Nixon people passed out rumors that McGovern had showed himself to be a "sissy" in World War II, that he had avoided taking difficult missions and was scorned by his crew.

The McGovern campaign staff made no effort to correct this lie and bring out the fact that they had a courageous tiger as a candidate. He had won one DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and was nominated for another.

TV commentator and columnist Mark Shields was, back then, a member of the campaign staff of McGovern's runningmate, Sarge Shriver. He told me the other day that he had at that time made a suggestion to the McGovern staff that it let the public know its candidate was a "decorated" pilot, a hero who on a number of occasions had brought planes back that were heavily damaged by enemy fire.

"I told them," Shields said, "to get the message out, to put a member of one of those planes on TV as a witness to McGovern's courage. He'd say something like this: 'Let me tell you how it was. I was terrified. We were all shot up. I thought we would never get back. But McGovern brought us back.' "

"The point of such a message," said Shields, "was that you don't have to be a hawk to be courageous and patriotic."

This approach had worked, said Shields, in John J. Gilligan's 1970 race for governor of Ohio. Liberal, anti-Vietnam Gilligan was accused by the opposition of being soft and unpatriotic.

As a rebuttal, the Gilligan team, of which Shields was a member, put a sailor who had witnessed Gilligan's heroism on TV to inform the voters how Gilligan had been officer of the deck on his ship in the Pacific when it was hit by a Kamikaze plane and how he had won the Silver Star Medal for his courageous response to the attack. "This TV spot," said Shields, "inoculated Gilligan against the charge he was not tough. Gilligan was elected."

Shields doesn't know why his McGovern recommendation was turned down. But it was.

I find that disclosure interesting, worth a mention by historians. Had the Shields advice been taken, would it have changed the election's outcome? Probably not. Nixon had already put together such a commanding lead. But who knows? McGovern might have tightened the race.

With considerable public concern being stirred up by our accidental bombing of civilians in Afghanistan, it is interesting to find out in Ambrose's book what that famous dove, McGovern, thought about his own bombs hitting civilians.

Ambrose cites a 1985 interview by a reporter who asked McGovern, "Senator, did you ever regret bombing beautiful cities like Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, and others?" McGovern answered, "Well, nobody thinks that war is a lovely affair. It is humanity at its worst, it's a breakdown of normal communication, and it is a very savage enterprise.

"But on the other hand, there are issues that sometimes must be decided by warfare after all else fails. I thought Adolf Hitler was a madman who had to be stopped. So my answer to your question is no, I don't regret bombing strategic targets in Austria. I do regret the damage that was done to innocent people...."

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