October 31, 2012 [LINK / comment]

R.I.P. George McGovern (1922-2012)

I would be terribly remiss if I failed to pay due respects to the man who inspired me to get involved in politics and public affairs when I was young. Former South Dakota Senator George McGovern, the crusading liberal "prairie populist" who lost to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race, passed away last week at the age of 90. This was only days after he was sent to a hospice facility for the terminally ill in Sioux Falls.

After growing up in Mitchell, South Dakota, McGovern joined the Army Air Force in World War II and became a camera B-24 Liberator pilot. He flew 35 combat missions from Italy to targets in Nazi-occupied southeastern Europe and Austria, and once had to overcome heavy damage to his plane from anti-aircraft fire on an arduous trip back to base. After the war he resumed studies at Dakota Wesleyan College (now University) in Mitchell and graduated in 1946. Later he briefly pursued studies in divinity (he was a Methodist) but then switched programs and earned a master's degree in history from Northwestern University (Chicago) in 1949. After that he returned home and became a professor of history at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan.

The young academician soon became active in Democratic Party politics and won election to the House of Representatives in 1956. His bid four years later to unseat incumbent Senator Karl Mundt failed, however, and he was appointed to run the Food for Peace program by President Kennedy. In 1962 he was elected to South Dakota's other Senate seat, and he soon became known as a leading critic of the Vietnam War. After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968, McGovern ran in RFK's stead at the Democratic convention in Chicago, in a largely symbolic gesture. During his second term in the Senate, he became known as the leader of the peace movement on Capitol Hill. He overcame establishment Democrat Ed Muskie in the 1972 primary campaign, surprising the world with his well-organized campaign full of passionate young activists. (Bill Clinton was one of them.) But the tragic Eagleton Affair, a booming (though fragile) economy, and the prospect of "peace is at hand" in Vietnam (Henry Kissinger) doomed his candidacy, and he only won Massachusetts and D.C. in the November 6 election.

McGovern won a third Senate term in 1974, soon after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, but he fell victim to the Reagan Revolution of 1980, and never again served in elective office. He ran for president again in 1984, but dropped out early. Over the next two decades he wrote books, lectured, and worked in various international food and hunger programs. Unlike many other career politicians, McGovern returned to his home state after retiring from public service, living in his home town of Mitchell until recently. In 2006 Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication of the McGovern Library at DWU, and a year later his beloved wife of 64 years, Eleanor, passed away. (They first met as high school debate opponents; she won!) The family suffered the loss of two children who were afflicted with alcoholism.

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader had an entire special Commemorative Edition: "George McGovern's life, told in five chapters." Some of the details in the above paragraphs are based on it, but I already knew the highlights of McGovern's life history. Thanks to my brother Chris, who sent me a hard copy as a keepsake. For a more concise obituary, see the Washington Post.

I saw George McGovern for the first time on November 7, 1972, when he gave his concession speech as the election returns made clear he was losing by a landslide to Richard Nixon. Even though I wasn't old enough to vote, I was working that evening with the local TV station in compiling and tabulating election reports from across the state. I got permission to leave for a half hour or so, and walked a few blocks to the Sioux Falls Arena, going through security and straining for a view of the stage from behind the jam-packed bleachers. It was a truly heartbreaking moment. We were sure that there was much more behind the Watergate scandal than had yet been revealed, but the coverup was succeeding quite well at that point, gravely damaging our country's democratic institutions.

The last time I saw McGovern was about a quarter century later, at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, in the late 1990s. He was the featured speaker that day in a series of talks by defeated presidential candidates. We had a pleasant conversation afterwards, and he asked about my father (Alan), whom he knew fairly well through the course of South Dakota politics. Ironically, I already considered myself as a Republican by that point, but of course I didn't mention that during our conversation.

Just writing about McGovern brings out painful conflicts in my own self. I used to be liberal and idealistic, and I know how easy it is to slip toward the other extreme of cynicism when one becomes disillusioned with an ideology. Thankfully, that has not happened to me. McGovern endured severe hardships of all varieties over the course of his life, but he always remained stoic and upbeat. Even as his name became a cliché for failed left-wing Democratic policies, McGovern remained graceful, did not succumb to bitterness, and remained a faithful Christian throughout his life. He was everything that a public servant should be: courageous, energetic, intellectually engaged, decent, modest, and brutally honest. In retrospect, I strongly disagree with many of the policy positions he advocated, but I nevertheless wish I could live up to his sterling example. McGovern should be remembered for his many positive contributions to American politics, especially the ideal of civility in public discourse.