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JOAN VENNOCHI

Is Dean another McGovern?

HOWARD DEAN is no George McGovern, even though Republicans and Democrats are working hard to portray him that way. Even so, the comparison is not the disgrace his opponents are striving to make it. The strategy to undermine Dean, the leading antiwar candidate in the 2004 campaign, is obvious. McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, ran as an anti-Vietnam War candidate. Richard M. Nixon, his Republican opponent, vowed to keep America strong. McGovern garnered only 38 percent of the popular vote, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. It was a landslide victory for Nixon, a crushing defeat for McGovern and for Democrats, and the dawn of an image as naive left-wing peaceniks that the party is still trying to erase.

Nixon portrayed McGovern as a wimp, McGovern didn't dispute the characterization, and the public bought it. But what if during that long ago presidential campaign McGovern had showcased his own brave service to the country?

The South Dakota preacher's son was inducted into the US Army Air Force in 1943 and sent to Europe as a B-24 pilot. He flew 35 missions and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. The combat experience of this genuine World War II hero is chronicled in "The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany 1944-45," by famed historian and author Stephen Ambrose. (After publication of the best-selling book, Ambrose was criticized for borrowing passages from other works, including McGovern's autobiography, "Grassroots," without using quotation marks.)

Like many World War II veterans, McGovern did not talk about his heroics. In an article written in 2001, syndicated columnist Mark Shields addressed McGovern's war record from a unique vantage point. Shields was involved in the McGovern campaign, serving as political director for McGovern's running mate, Sargent Shriver.

"I urged the McGovern managers to film a couple of members of the flight crew telling how terrified they were the day McGovern, with two of his plane's four engines knocked out, somehow managed through skill and strength an emergency landing of his B-24 . . . on a 2,200 foot runway on an island in the Adriatic," wrote Shields, who viewed in the Ambrose book as "30 years late -- the story of George McGovern, by all evidence a superb pilot and an unflappable leader who always thought first of his crew."

In short, McGovern and his crew risked life for country at least 35 times. How is it a disgrace for any candidate to be compared with that?

Republicans are infamous for their willingness to question the patriotism of Democrats like McGovern and Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. Cleland lost his Georgia Senate seat to a Republican challenger who accused him of being soft on national defense because he did not back the Bush administration position on creating a homeland security department.

But what about Democrats? Why should they be so willing to portray McGovern as pure political poison? It is because losing as McGovern did -- overwhelmed by the opposition, but with principle and conviction intact -- is not merely unpopular today, it is unthinkable. Presidential politics have come a long way from where they were in 1972. Candidates today will do and say whatever it takes to win, from packaging wartime exploits to voting to authorize war out of fear of looking like a "McGovernite."

As it turns out, Dean shares only an antiwar platform with McGovern. The former Vermont governor never served in the military. In 1971, he received a draft deferment for an unfused vertebra in his back. It did not stop him from skiing moguls in Aspen during the winter of 1971-72, a juxtaposition he is asked frequently to explain as a presidential candidate. In response to questions posed last June by NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert, Dean said, "I didn't have anything to do with choosing any draft deferment. . . The United States government said this is your classification. I'm not responsible for that."

Clearly, Dean is no McGovern. But anyone who labels him "another McGovern" does not insult him by comparison. McGovern was a war hero and a dove. He was both a brave soldier and a courageous critic of a war Americans were once told they had to fight. That war is now viewed as a mistake and lesson for future generations. How much more prescient can any politician hope to be?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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