The news this week that former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern is in the last days of his 90 years is a reminder once again that even given our nasty, polarized, hyper-partisan politics one man can have an impact. The fact that McGovern, an unabashed liberal, made his impact for so many years in South Dakota, a state almost as conservative as Idaho, is remarkable. No less remarkable than the long runs of Idaho Democrats Frank Church and Cecil Andrus.
McGovern has known ever since 1972 that the first line of his obituary would reference his historic presidential loss to the future unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon. An historian by training and temperament, McGovern could take comfort in the verdict of history that, while describing his national campaign in ’72 as quixotic and chaotic, would also come to judge him more right than wrong on Vietnam, Watergate and a host of other vital issues. And, of course, the contrast with Nixon, given the perfect lens of hindsight, couldn’t be greater.
My memories of McGovern start with the personal. He spoke at my high school graduation in 1971. No one remembers a high school graduation speech, but I certainly remember the speaker. When McGovern ran for re-election in South Dakota in 1974 – ironically against a Vietnam Medal of Honor winner and POW Leo Thorsness – I was a college-kid-aspiring journalist who filed his one and only NPR piece on Thorsness’ announcement of candidacy.
Years later I heard McGovern, a part-time Montana resident, deliver a moving memorial speech for the great Sen. Mike Mansfield. More recently I happened to be in Washington, D.C. at a time when McGovern was back on Capitol Hill to talk about his then-latest book a biography of Abraham Lincoln. McGovern took to the Lincoln project – one of the slim and wonderful volumes in the American President Series – with a level of personal understanding of what it must have taken for Lincoln to strive for the presidency, win it against great odds, withstand immense criticism and then die in the cause of Union and justice. A signed copy of the little book, which I highly recommend, is a treasured part of my collection.
George McGovern is the kind of political figure that truly intrigues me; a man running against the odds, who writes his own books, speak with passion and candor about hard issues and ultimately has always been comfortable in his own skin. He is far and way a different man from the “loser” image that some have used to define him for 40 years.
Three aspects of McGovern’s life where little know beyond the borders of South Dakota. First, as a young college history teacher he decided that no one else would take on the task of building a competitive Democratic Party in South Dakota in the 1950’s – so he did. Traveling the state, meeting one-on-one with thousands of people, McGovern organized, planned and plotted. In the process he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the state from the timberland of the Black Hills to the dry land farming country east of the Missouri River. As my friend Mark Trahant writes McGovern won his first senate race, by a whooping 597 votes, because he appealed to South Dakota’s Native American population, a segment of the state’s population that most politicians had marginalized and ignored prior to 1962. George McGovern was a builder.
Historian Stephen Ambrose’s book The Wild Blue told the story of McGovern’s 35 combat missions as a B-24 pilot over Europe. The young McGovern, piloting the Dakota Queen, survived tough and extraordinarily dangerous duty and he memories of war dogged him all his days. His service won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ironically – or cynically – McGovern, the legit war hero, was branded by Nixon during that 1972 race as soft on national defense and defeatist about Vietnam. To his personal credit and to his political detriment, McGovern never traded on his remarkable military record. Imagine that. Unlike a lot of national security hawks who never experienced war up close, McGovern did and conducted himself accordingly.
The third little know fact about McGovern is his life-long devotion to the cause of world hunger. From his earliest days McGovern never grew tired of talking about, nor grew cynical about, the need for the world’s wealthy countries to put aside differences and provide the most basic need – food – to millions of people around the world. McGovern traced his concerns about hunger back to his military days in war ravaged and hungry Italy. He told moving stories about young kids begging in broken English for a candy bar from the American GI’s. It marked him.
By the way, McGovern teamed with another World War II hero, Republican Sen. Bob Dole, to write most of the nation’s food security legislation – WIC, school lunches and food stamps, included. Talk about an historic bipartisan effort.
George McGovern – historian, politician, failing presidential candidate, hunger advocate – will be treated better by the history books than he has been by his contemporaries. If you believe, as Tom Brokaw has dubbed McGovern’s contemporaries, that the World War II generation was America’s greatest, then the gentleman – the gentle man – from Avon, South Dakota was a genuine example of personal greatness. Dare I say it – the U.S. Senate could use a few like him.