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I’ve had the fortune – mostly good and a little bad at times – to have lived all my adult life in two states where Democrats have become endangered species – South Dakota and Idaho.

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.




The Great Divide

An Uber Gilded Age

A friend of mine has always said he never feels more patriotic than on the day he files his tax return and most years ships off a check to Uncle Sam.

Most Americans, I suspect, consider the tax obligation a necessary duty of citizenship. They may not like it much, but financing our government – yours and mine – is a fundamental obligation of citizens in a democracy. We band together to do for ourselves the things we can’t do alone – national defense, highways, airports, education and care for the poor and lame. That’s government and taking care to maintain it is patriotic no matter what the tax protests say.

Where the social compact starts to fray, however, is at the point where you and I pay and someone else doesn’t. The Washington-based Tax Policy Center says nearly 50% of Americans pay no income tax at all. They either have too little income to qualify or they qualify in our ridiculously complicated tax system for enough exemptions, credits and deductions to avoid any liability.

Little wonder that taxes and sending spark such political outrage. Half of the country, understandably including the poorest Americans, paying no federal tax with increasingly a tiny handful of the richest citizens controlling an ever expanding share of the wealth and also paying little or no taxes.

As Catherine Rampell pointed out recently in a New York Times piece, “the top 1 percent of earners receive about a fifth of all American income; on the other hand, the top 1 percent of Americans by net worth hold about a third of American wealth.” During the so called Gilded Age of the 1890’s, wealth distribution in the United States was not as out of whack as it is today.

Writing in the May issue of Vanity Fair, Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz says: “In terms of income inequality, America lags behind any country in old Europe.  Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.”

Couple those statistics with the almost daily news that top corporate CEO’s, even in firms still struggling with the recession, are raking in big bonuses and pulling down big pay raises.

The only thing that seems to impact behavior at this rarified level is sunlight. After the outcry over the news that GE, with U.S. profits of $5.1 billion in 2010, paid no taxes, but rather received a $3.2 billion refund, the company has been forced to place further restrictions on the compensation of CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

In the now classic Hollywood portrayal of the ruthless characters on Wall Street, Michael Douglas, playing that Godfather of Greed Gordon Gekko is asked, “how much is enough?”

His answer: “It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another.”

I really didn’t mind sending in the tax return (and the check). I just hope Gordon Gekko sent one, too.

But, then again, greed knows no shame, or it seems, any limits.