McGovern and Kreisky: a Friendship, and Shared Political Ideals

Upon George McGovern’s passing at the age of 90 on 21 Oct., TVR Editor-in-chief recalls his affinity with Bruno Kreisky

George McGovern

Former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern at the Renner Institute in Vienna on May 25, 1987 | Photo: Bill Lorenz / APA-Archiv /

Waiting for a role call vote in the U.S. Senate, one day in the 1970s, Senator George McGovern fell into conversation with colleague and fellow liberal Edward Kennedy. A member of the Foreign Relations Committee, McGovern would be leading a trip to Europe and asked Kennedy for his advice about people to meet with.

Go see Bruno Kreisky, Kennedy told him.

McGovern took his advice, and made an appointment for the first of what would be a series of visits, including two “rather lengthy” ones at the Chancellor’s home in Vienna’s 19th District.

“I came to regard [Kreisky] as a counselor, an educator, an inspiration and a treasured friend,” McGovern wrote in an introduction to a 1994 volume, The Kreisky Era in Austria, (Günter Bischof and Anton Pelinka, eds.). “He had a combination of wisdom, experience, imagination and historical perspective that is rare among political leaders. He was the European statesman I admired most.”

It is not hard to appreciate why McGovern and Kreisky would understand and like each other. A life-long standard bearer for the Liberal values in America, McGovern had led his failed presidential bid against Richard Nixon in 1972 on a platform promising to end the war in Vietnam, and advancing the causes of women’s rights, affirmative action for minorities and even a nascent gay rights movement.

In Austria, with an unchallenged Socialist majority, Kreisky had been able to legalise abortion, decriminalise homosexuality and adultery – remarkable feats in a Catholic country – as well as establish generous maternity leave with job protection, including a “mother-child passport” covering pre- and post natal care, “newly-wed grants” of 15,000 Austrian schillings, an equal rights act for women and another one for children born out of wedlock.

At a time when “law and order” campaigns were playing a growing role in American politics, and the “War on Drugs” had led to harsh, non-discretionary sentencing, Kreisky had managed a major reform of the Austrian criminal code that would treat arrest and sentencing as custodial rather than punitive. In contrast to the widespread contempt for conscientious objectors in the U.S., Kreisky established alternative service for those who declined active military duty.


Different histories, different values

The United States and Austria entered the 1970s with very different histories; societies have phases, and intellectual fashions change with the concerns of the people living through them. Austria was finally emerging from the devastation of war and the cultural disaster of the Nazi years.The post-war years in America saw an explosion of pent-up demand and the blossoming of a middle class who took its prosperity increasingly – and, as it turned out, inaccurately – for granted. Social movements in Austria were understood in the context of a shared recovery, in America as a threat to the status quo.

And it was on this basis that McGovern’s defeat was engineered by Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President in 1972: George McGovern – a minister’s son from farm country, a genuine war hero and social activist – was portrayed as “a cowardly left-winger, a threat to the military and the free-market economy,” and thus outside the mainstream of American thought.

McGovern understood he had lost the election on false impressions. “We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “We should have paid more attention to image.”

These were issues he talked over with the Austrian chancellor, who shared his growing concern about the attacks on American Liberalism.

“Mr. Kreisky and I discussed the difference between American politics and the politics of the European democracies,” McGovern continued in his introduction, “especially the Social Democratic parties of Europe…, [as opposed to] the essentially conservative […] guidelines which both of the American parties followed – including their commitment to the “free market” and the dogmas of capitalism…, [and] the virtual absence of a genuine political left.”

The America George McGovern had in mind might have harnessed the energy of the social movements of the 1970s into the mainstream of national life. Fairness and equality of opportunity, he continued to emphasise, are very American ideas. There is no way of knowing how things would have turned out, of course, but one can guess that the wealth gap between rich and poor would have been narrower, that costs and access to health care and education would have been more fairly distributed and that military interventions and budgets would have been better scrutinised.

While Bruno Kreisky’s idealism “gave him a special concern for …the importance of economic and social justice, [he] was also a political realist and a pragmatist,” McGovern wrote admiringly, a combination he sought to emulate. Given the chance, he might have set in motion a very different history of the last 35 years.

George McGovern died in his home state of  South Dakota 21 Oct. 2012, at the age of 90.

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