South Dakota Senator George McGovern’s 1972 run for the White House was the last Presidential campaign I ever worked on. My journalistic career appropriately barred political involvement. But, as a good and decent man who stood up for what he believed in and never wavered, he remained in my heart. His shattering loss to Richard Nixon (McGovern won only Massachusetts and D.C.) made him a laugh line for years, but he was a stellar individual, and I was proud to be able to call Massachusetts “the one and only.”
My next personal contact with him was in 1979 when I was involved with the production of PBS’ The Advocates, a courtroom style debate of public affairs hot issues. One program, on the Salt II treaties, was to be produced out of the Senate Foreign Relations Chamber. In a break from tradition, there were three sides to the debate: 1) yes, support the treaty because the limits on missiles and warheads would cut the risk of nuclear warfare; 2) oppose the treaty because we needed our entire arsenal against the Russians; and 3) oppose the treaty because the limits on allowable weaponry were set too high. Only three Senators – Republican Mark Hatfield (Oregon), Democrat William Proxmire (Wisconsin and George McGovern – held that third position. That third position, by the way, was the team on which I was working. We wanted Hatfield as our star witness, but he was unavailable. Proxmire was such a maverick that he lacked credibility. And so it fell to McGovern. He was wonderful! With those steely but twinkling blue eyes and oh-so-sharp mind, he had total command of the data and a passionate commitment to the principles of peace in a nuclear world. He made our team look really good.
My last connection with him was when in was visiting in Boston ten years or so ago as Ambassador to the United Nations for Food and Agriculture. I was seated next to him at a dinner following his speaking engagement. At 80+, he was still passionate, informed and inspiring.
Republicans loved to paint him as a wimp, a pejorative reinforced by his somewhat reedy tone of voice. In war and in peace, he was anything but a wimp. McGovern rarely, if ever, mentioned his role as a pilot during World War II, flying 35 combat missions and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. I suspect that seeing war up close and personal helped to inform his antiwar views. His “Come Home to America” acceptance speech, heard by so few because convention chaos kept it from being made until nearly three a.m., still reads as a manifesto for what America should be all about.
In this era of bitter partisanship, McGovern was the antithesis of today’s grudge-holding politicians. He was reportedly one of just two Democrats to attend Pat Nixon’s funeral and spoke of the need for reconciliation.
He was an outstanding American, and I can’t identify anyone on the political stage today who has the commitment, clarity and courage that George McGovern demonstrated in his lifetime.
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