Two Glorious Failures

George and Stan were born a few months apart in 1922 only to die a few days apart some ninety years later.  Both distinguished themselves after emerging from inauspicious upbringings, George in Avon, SD and Stan in Akron, OH.  Though they were widely admired, neither grabbed the big, brass ring atop their notable achievements.  Less noteworthy were the two times they met this writer, once as their stars were on the rise and, 35 years later, when they were setting.

George McGovern was one of a half-dozen senators I interviewed in March of 1968 for my senior thesis on The Congressional Role in Determination of U.S. Policy in Indochina since 1945.  Rocked by the one-two punch in early ’68 – the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive and the surprisingly strong challenge of Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary – President Lyndon Johnson was about to shock the country on the final day of March by announcing that he would not stand for reelection. 

A highly decorated WWII bomber pilot, McGovern had 35 B-24 missions under his belt when he stepped on to the Senate floor in 1963 as a freshman to question America’s role in Vietnam. He did not, however, vote along with the two sole dissenters, Morse and Gruening, against the Tonkin Bay Resolution because, he told me, he did not believe that it gave LBJ a blank check to escalate the war in Vietnam.  And he did not join Morse and others in voting to defund the war, until sponsoring such legislation in 1971. 

I asked McGovern in his Senate office on March 27, “Why do you think McCarthy took up the fight against Johnson?”

Speaking in a slow drawl flat as the High Plains, his upper lip perpetually drawn above his teeth as if wincing, McGovern recounted how the Dump Johnson organizers had first approached him after Bobby Kennedy declined to take up the challenge.  “But I didn’t think LBJ could be ousted, and I was up for re-election, so I sent them down to see Gene.”  The Minnesota Senator’s 42% showing against the sitting President’s 49.6% in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state on March12 shook things up big time.  Four days later an opportunistic RFK finally jumped into the race.    

But it proved no easy task to shake McCarthy and his dedicated supporters, like myself.  In late May, I booked out of high school for Oregon to catch McCarthy’s 44% to 38% primary win over Kennedy.  RFK was assassinated a week later right after claiming victory in California.  Even though McCarthy commanded a 39%-31% lead over Kennedy in total primary results, incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with meager 2% of the votes, racked up the vast majority of delegates from non-primary states.

Two weeks before the tumultuous ’68 Chicago convention, McGovern stepped into the mix, claiming the mantle of Kennedy supporters in a last ditch effort to purportedly head off Humphrey’s nomination.  The only upshot of this move was to tick off McCarthy supporters like myself.  When he ran as the Democratic nominee against President Richard Nixon in ‘72, I expressed my on-going ire by voting for Baby Doctor Benjamin Spock.  It hardly mattered; McGovern suffered the second worst drubbing in history.

Stanford Ovshinsky, father of photovoltaic solar panels and hybrid car batteries, liked to say that “the periodic table is my tool box….  I know how to put elements together so they respond to one another to get new mechanisms, new phenomenon.  I see patterns where others see a maze.”  The 1950’s semiconductor world of crystalline structures based on a rigid latticework of atoms was counterintuitive to Ovshinsky.  He charged thin films of amorphous materials which instantaneously reconfigured into semi-crystalline forms capable of carrying significant current at a fraction of the cost of conventional semiconductors. 

I asked Ovshinsky in 1976 about a biometric device that some colleagues and I were developing for autonomic conditioning.  Employing a cholesteric rather than nematic liquid crystal of the kind more commonly used in pocket calculator displays was, indeed, the way to go he observed.  He graciously agreed to be referenced on the principle that thermotropic characteristics of liquid crystals could display actionable feedback of vasodilation/constriction in mitigating migraines. 

Our paths crossed once again in 2007 at New York Institute of Technology which presented Ovshinsky that school’s first Leadership in Sustainable Technology Award.  The genius inventor without the college degree told the collegians to “never stop going to your own school.”  Sharing knowledge was a driving impulse for Stan, and NYIT’s Solar Decathletes were at the receiving end.  Strip the carbon out of hydrocarbon, said the self-taught, practical tinkerer, and go straight to the pure hydrogen burn by developing mechanisms to first solidify then liquefy this 100% clean fuel.

Not everyone was so smitten with Ovshinsky.  In one of its characteristic hatchet jobs, Forbes called him “the puppetmaster of this long-running farce” whose company, Energy Conversion Devices, “may deserve a place in the Guinness Book of World Records” for losing money in 36 of its 40 publicly-traded years.  Never mind all the joint ventures with the likes of GM, Intel, Chevron and Canon licensing many of his 400 U.S. and 800 international patents which generated hundreds of millions; Ovshinsky never really saw cash infusions as anything more than a lifeline for compelling science.  Just months before his passing, Stan Ovshinsky’s company filed for bankruptcy after over a half-century of innovation that enriched the rest of us. 

George McGovern wasn’t much of a businessman either.  After my family and I crisscrossed Big Sky country back in ’03, we stopped in at McGovern’s in the Bitter Root Valley.  Nominally a bookstore, it was really more of an archival homage to his public service .  Lunching at a nearby pub, I asked George about his bed & breakfast which went belly-up, but I didn’t ask him to compare and contrast with running the United States of America.   I did ask how a non-combatant like Nixon got away with tarring a war hero like McGovern with chicken feathers. 

“The problem with guys like Nixon and Reagan and Bush is they got it wrong,” George responded.  “They are soft-minded and tough-hearted when you need to be the other way around.”