You know, I was brought up in the ruling class. They hate the people.
–Gore Vidal, One Bright Shining Moment
Lies are natural to governments… They lie most about war, because in war, there is the sharpest difference between the interests of the government and the interests of the people. Because in war, the people will die.
–Howard Zinn, One Bright Shining Moment
We were on the wrong side.
–Casey Biggs, “Vietnam Storyteller”
One Bright Shining Moment begins with a montage of familiar Vietnam war era images: Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Nixon appear intercut with shots of bombs dropping, the Pentagon in full glory, General Westmoreland, and a Vietnamese woman with her injured child. Amid the chaos, George McGovern speaks, proclaiming the primary reason he was running for president in 1972: “As one whose heart has ached for the past 10 years over the agony of Vietnam,” he says, “I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day.”
It’s alarming, and not a little heartbreaking, that such a call for peace remains relevant to this day. As documented in One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, the effects of McGovern’s campaign were not only remarkable during that season, but also, given the nightmare of that particular war that went on for another three years, largely lost to history. Now, “During the first few years of the post-American century,” says narrator Amy Goodman, once again, the U.S. population confronts “patriot imposters who can sell war.” Even in McGovern’s “mother of all presidential landslides” of defeat, the film finds “a lesson that might even offer a faint but legitimate guiding light.”
One Bright Shining Light assembles predictable supporters of McGovern then and his legacy now. Gore Vidal, McGovern’s campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz, and Dick Gregory remember their efforts at the time and urge engagement today. Warren Beatty recalls the Senator’s personal effect as well, observing, “It’s hard to find a person who’s run for something that has engendered as much affection as McGovern has engendered.” And to illustrate, the McGovern Army appears on screen in the form of “foot soldier” J.C. Svec, earnest, shaggy, and committed. Volunteers believed their work would make a difference, and they wanted their goodhearted candidate to win because they trusted him, not because he was the least of a set of evils. “If you took darkness and lit one match,” says Gregory, “His light was too bright because he didn’t understand compromise.”
Hagiographic though it may be, One Bright Shining Moment (now out on a DVD featuring deleted scenes, a short featuring “Vietnam Storyteller” Casey Biggs, and an interview with Amy Goodman linking current events with historical precedents), makes its case convincingly. By 1972, the war was on everyone’s mind. The film briefly traces the war’s domestic political history, including calls for its end from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. (Kennedy calls McGovern “the most decent man in the Senate. As a matter of fact, he’s probably the only one.”) Following their assassinations, Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign got off to a terrible start in Chicago, during what Jimmy Breslin called the “police riots.” McGovern frames the chaos specifically: “It was the war that tore that city apart.”
Vietnam war veteran Ron Kovic (author of Born on the Fourth of July) recalls, “All the veterans in the room were cheering on the beating of the protestors, but I remember feeling an empathy for the protestors. Things were changing inside of me.” He was, according to this movie, becoming a McGovern supporter, four years before he ran. Dick Gregory sets the 1968 Democratic Convention and voters’ responses to it in a broader context: “White folks had never seen their white kids get beat up.”
He proposes, “1968 arguably the worst year in American history,” what with the assassinations, Tet, Johnson’s withdrawal from the election, and the eventual election of Richard Nixon. The escalation of the war from that point on was tragic, even criminal, based on lies (this section of the film’s one-word title). Not only were strategies ineffective (as McGovern says, “It doesn’t do much good to bomb a rice field”) and objectives unclear, but troops and citizens also thought they had been deceived. As Kovic puts it, “If I died in Vietnam, I would die serving the country that I loved… We went to that war thinking that we were right and that our government would never lie to us.” (The Vietnam Storyteller makes the case that Ho Chi Minh was not a monster or even much of a threat to the U.S., but rather, in his efforts to initiate a democracy within Marxist ideology, “progressive compared to what the Vietnamese had known under French colonial rule. Surely, the U.S. could see this.” Apparently, “the U.S.” worked hard not to see it.)
Following My Lai, the invasion of Cambodia, and the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the U.S. population generally felt betrayed. (Still, as Howard Zinn notes, “This is part of an old story. It’s really not a surprise that the United States government would turn on its own people.”) As McGovern looks back on the war and its domestic effects, such “errors” also seem like part of a systemic degradation of purpose and ideals: “The great tragedy is that we stumbled into that war on the wrong side.” While he was frequently accused of lacking charisma and the capacity for lying required of presidential candidates, McGovern ran his campaign with integrity and intelligence.
His experience as a B-24 pilot in WWII helped McGovern comprehend the stakes of war, and he didn’t believe that U.S. global interests motivated the war in Vietnam. Looking back, he says, “I regret my vote in favor of the Tonkin resolution more than any other vote in my 22 years in the Senate.” He and the rest of Congress had been misled. And while the 1972 campaign took up a number of issues (some still resonating and unresolved, like unemployment and unfair taxes), McGovern focused repeatedly on the war: “Let’s recognize that we made a mistake.”
The campaign went wrong almost immediately. Under a section titled “Hell,” the film notes the “Eagleton Debacle,” as well as the “Southern Strategy” (Vidal explains: “The general elections generally go to the candidate who can portray his hatred of black people in the most tactful way, so they can’t be caught. And [the Republicans] were masters”). But even in their loss, the McGovern Army maintained their righteousness — and this is precisely what One Bright Shining Moment wants to recover, a sense of hope and outrage. As Mankiewicz notes, “We just lost an election. Most of the other guys went to jail.”