Johnny Rivers’ Plea For George McGovern
I’m glad I fought – I only wish we’d won
-Bob Dylan, from “Honest With Me” (2001)
Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones. Honky Chateau by Elton John. Never A Dull Moment by Rod Stewart. Those were three of the newly released albums that spent dozens of hours on my turntables in 1972. Thinking back, all three albums were especially worthy of the extra attention, as was one more, a “dark horse” album, if you will: L. A. Reggae by Johnny Rivers. Due to the prejudices of the time, Rivers wasn’t deemed bona-fide by the hipper-than-thou rock cognoscenti. Some of them were too busy listening to West, Bruce and Laing or Ten Years After. Johnny Rivers, you see, wasn’t “heavy,” but he did have a warm Southern voice which embraced a melody and added flavor to the stories in his songs. He also possessed a sense of taste that would still be evident more than 40 years later. Johnny Rivers made great sounding records.
L. A. Reggae was perhaps the best sounding and most thoroughly delivered album of his career. There were the covers (this time including “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Mother and Child Reunion,” plus another take on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”) that had always been part of his albums. Rivers was, first and foremost, a great interpretive singer; his cover versions were fresh and inventive. The cover that jumped off L. A. Reggae was the opener, “Rockin’ Pneumonia – Boogie Woogie Flu,” a vibrant re-make of Huey Smith’s 1957 hit. Rivers and his band, which included Jim Gordon, Larry Knetchel, Larry Carlton and Joe Osborn, rocked with the abandon of the Faces but with the polish and drive of players who had enlivened thousands of sessions.
Along with the familiar titles, Rivers brought with him a selection of his own songs, three of them written with newcomer Michael Georgiades. All of the Rivers compositions were solid, with two spirited rockers, “Stories To A Child” and “New York City Dues” serving as career peaks. Yet Rivers was also adept at easing up. He could present something soft, thoughtful and introspective even when it included a political message, as with “Come Home America.”
A Rivers-Georgiades work, “Come Home America” served as a theme song for George McGovern’s ’72 presidential campaign. McGovern was the son of a Methodist minister and it’s possible the “come home” theme pervading his speeches those days was inspired by the old Christian hymn, “Softly and Tenderly,” in which a weary sinner is implored to come home. The preacher’s son looked at the U.S.A. and regarded it as a lost flock, with shadows gathering and deathbeds coming. The country’s involvement in the Vietnam War contributed most to McGovern’s perception.
In The Making of the President- 1972, Theodore H. White noted “the moralist in McGovern” pondered the vagaries of a nation that thought of itself as altruistic participating in a war so barbaric: “If Americans themselves were not criminals, then at least they supported a government run by criminals,” White wrote, tracing McGovern’s line of thought. More than 5,000 innocent civilians were thought to have been killed in “Operation Speedy Express,” conducted by the U.S. military in the Mekong Delta. That death count weighed on McGovern’s mind as did thoughts of more young American soldiers returning home in coffins.(Over 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in the war.) The presumption of more deaths sent chills through friends and families stateside hoping and praying for an end to the war, a winding down of the war or just walking away from the war, as long as their loved ones came home safe and sound. There was hope. As McGovern pleaded his case in ’72, the smallest amount of Americans were killed in action since 1965, the year after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed. McGovern could feel victorious, if not at the ballot box, then with the withdrawal of U.S. forces; he had performed his duty. But as Americans saw the war winding down, the “criminals” in government busied themselves with other illegal activities. American troops came home, yet to those who embraced McGovern’s message to “come home” most fervently and with wider comprehension, the nation still seemed adrift.
In his concession speech after a crushing loss to incumbent President Nixon, the words from George McGovern were assuring. Graceful in defeat, he declared, “We do not rally to the support of policies that we deplore, but we do love this country and will continue to beckon it a higher standard,” McGovern expressed hope his supporters would remain faithful to their convictions. Of greater importance to the defeated Democrat was that his campaign had fought the good fight. He promised the people that their efforts “would bear fruit for years to come.” Happily, McGovern said, “We have pushed this country in the direction of peace.” Both consolation and a sense of victory were articulated when he said, “If we pushed the day of peace just one day closer, then every minute and every hour and every bone-crushing effort in this campaign was worth the entire sacrifice.” While smarting over losing 49 states, McGovern kept his eyes on the prize: peace itself. A war could end, the soldiers could come home and the country could take the opportunity to return to its principles.
In a tribute posted by Foreign Policy last week, Todd Gitlin wrote McGovern’s conservative opponents were most “freaked out” by the three words that framed his message: “Come Home America.”
“From secrecy and deception in high places, come home, America.
From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, come home America.
From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idol lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the neglected sick – come home America.
Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream.”
Gitlin is right. That had to freak out the Nixon campaign. Four years earlier Nixon spoke of bringing us together. And with the assumed approval of the “Silent Majority,” Nixon’s policies tore the country asunder. While Republicans cheered their victory, McGovern’s words reminded America it had even farther to go in delivering on its promise.
Peace had come along one day sooner and, no doubt, many young men came home alive and in one piece due to the anti-war efforts McGovern cited. Even the Silent Majority, reluctant to allow their thoughts to evolve, would’ve shouted “bring the boys home” too if the number of casualties remained at the levels reached from ’66 through ’71. Call it “peace with honor” or simply an admission that an outdated policy had gone terribly wrong, Americans set it all aside to welcome back its young men, included those imprisoned by North Vietnam. For a brief starry-eyed moment, it seemed possible America could truly come home, as hoped by Senator McGovern on the campaign trail and in the Rivers-Georgiades song.
In “Come Home America,” Rivers sings of the hope that America can “pick up the dream you left behind,” perhaps the one voiced by Martin Luther King, Jr. less than a decade before. And as with King’s plea, Rivers’ call is ecumenical, so to speak. The good work of all, “young and old, rich and poor, black and white,” will be vital in finding the way home. With such a simple but elegantly written piece of music, Johnny Rivers makes the journey sound, as George McGovern would say, worth the entire effort.
George McGovern had many of the prominent members of the rock scene on his side in the ’72 presidential campaign. In fact, if one regularly perused the pages of Rolling Stone at the time, it might’ve appeared McGovern had the momentum. While the Nixonites exclaimed “four more years,” the McGovern faithful, as the campaign drew to a close, crossed their fingers, hoping for victory in four more weeks. Many of the faithful maintained their admiration for McGovern decades later, believing he would’ve been a great president, still hoping they’d have an opportunity again to support a man of such decency. They could also take heart in that some of McGovern’s admirers were on the opposite side of the aisle, as with former Senator Bob Dole, who served as the Chairman of the Republican Party in ’72. It was Dole’s job to work for McGovern’s defeat, but along the way he grew to understand and appreciate the McGovern message. Like McGovern, Dole had fought bravely for America in World War Two. They also shared knowledge of the scars and devastation brought on by war. That had to influence both men as they worked to end world hunger, even long after their political careers had ended. In a tribute posted by The Washington Post on October 21, 2012, the day of George McGovern’s passing, Bob Dole wrote:
There can be no doubt that throughout his half-century career in the public arena, George McGovern never gave up on his principles or in his determination to call our nation to a higher plain. America and the world are for the better because of him.