The Grit and Grace of George McGovern

(AP Photo, File)

In this August 9, 1972 file photo, with the pictures of former Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Johnson behind him, Senator George McGovern, introduces Sargent Shriver as his vice-presidential pick to the Democratic National Committee in Washington. A family spokesman says, McGovern, the Democrat who lost to President Richard Nixon in 1972 in a historic landslide, has died at the age of 90. According to a spokesman, McGovern died Sunday, October 21, 2012 at a hospice in Sioux Falls, surrounded by family and friends.

Throughout his sixty years in public life, a great deal was written about George McGovern. One of my favorite descriptions of him is by Pete Hamill. Back in the 1972 presidential campaign, he wrote: “George McGovern comes at you like one of those big Irish heavyweights in the 1930s—a little slow, but with the chin shut hard against the chest, the jaw breaching out, coming on, daring you to do your best. ... He might be beaten, but you will know he was there. He will not fold up on you ... he will surrender no dignity ... and you will come away speaking about him with respect.”

As we consider George’s contributions to our country, one thing is clear: Americans of all stripes have come away speaking about him with a deep, profound, and enduring respect. Someone once asked St. Francis of Assisi what it took to live a good life. He replied: “Preach the Gospel every day. If necessary, use words.” There are many ways to preach the Gospel. George McGovern practiced more of them that anyone I’ve ever known. He’s been a minister. Teacher. Peacemaker. Humanitarian. Champion of hungry children. 

And if that’s not enough, he also pretty much single-handedly restored the two-party system of government in my state of South Dakota—and made my political career, among others, possible.

George and his wife, Eleanor, had four small children when he decided, in 1955, to resign as chairman of the history department at Dakota Wesleyan College in Mitchell, South Dakota, and try to rebuild the state Democratic Party. Their friends agreed there could be only one explanation for his decision: He’d lost his mind. Actually, there was another explanation. In a speech at Wheaton College in Illinois less than a month before he lost the 1972 election to Richard Nixon, George told his audience: "I felt called into the work of serving others. At first I thought my vocation was in the ministry, and I enrolled in seminary. ... After a period of deep reflection, I thought I should become a teacher. Yet, even in my teaching at Dakota Wesleyan University, I felt there was something else for me to do—and that is what finally led me into politics."

As George put it another time, he “had a desire to work in public service and to be a part of both the world of ideas and the field of action.” The hallmark of his career was his drive to bridge the gap between those worlds—to turn ideas into action, aspirations into reality.   

His early years in politics are now the stuff of legend and lore. The World War II veteran spent three years criss-crossing South Dakota—shaking hands, collecting names on 3-by-5-inch index cards. He soon created an organization that enabled him to beat the biggest vote-getter in the state in 1956 and win a seat in Congress, becoming the first Democrat South Dakota had sent to the U.S. House of Representatives in twenty-two years.  Then, in 1962, he became the first Democrat sent to the U.S. Senate from South Dakota in twenty-six years.

In Congress, George immediately proved himself a force to be reckoned with. He introduced an agriculture bill on his first day in the House. In the following months, he secured the passage of more legislation than any of the other 44 freshmen he was sworn in with. His constituents, the people he advocated for, were South Dakota families who were just barely holding on to their farms. They were common working people in our state and all across America. Poor people. Hungry people. The often overlooked.

If George had never entered politics, he might still have influenced thousands of people like me, most likely as a distinguished history professor. But I doubt that I would ever have been elected to Congress. When I was growing up in South Dakota in the 1950s, the idea of a Democrat getting elected to Congress seemed about as likely as Martians landing in your yard. It just didn’t happen. But because of what George had done, that changed. The fact that he won both his House and Senate seats expanded my idea of what was possible for me personally. But it was what he did with these seats that affected me most deeply.

In 1972, I was an intelligence officer with the Air Force Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska. My day job was analyzing intelligence data on the Soviet Union. I had another, volunteer job in the evenings—helping to run the McGovern for President primary office. It was an unusual combination.

What attracted me to this man was not just that he was from my state. It was his intellect and integrity, his courage and his enormous decency. I like what someone wrote about him in his Mitchell high school yearbook: “For a debater, he’s a nice kid.” For a politician, he was extraordinary.

For two years, from 1978 to 1980, I had the privilege of serving in the South Dakota delegation with George. Although he was the most senior member of our team, and I was the most junior, he treated me as an equal. He also taught me important lessons—mostly by his example—lessons too few politicians get these days. Like the fact that you can express deep convictions without ranting, and you can disagree without being disagreeable. He showed me the cynics are wrong; politics can be a noble profession. You make sacrifices to be in politics. But you don’t have to sacrifice your idealism or your conscience.

I remember one of my first lessons in political leadership from George. I was just beginning my political career, running for the first time as a candidate for the U.S. House. The year was 1977. The location: The South Dakota State Fair. The country was consumed in a raging national debate over the Panama Canal treaties.

George was surrounded by an angry group of fairgoers who demanded that he both explain and change his position in support of the treaties. They threatened to defeat him in his next re-election. I watched with profound admiration and respect as the senator calmly and articulately explained the necessity of the treaties and the value they had for both Panama and the United States.

The raucous debate ended, the crowd dissipated, and George and I walked back to the Democratic booth. As we walked, I noted the contrast between the anger of the crowd and his extraordinarily calm demeanor. He replied, “If I have learned anything in my years of active political life, it is the importance of telling someone what we really believe rather than trying to tell him what he may want to hear.”

George told people what he believed, whether or not they wanted to hear it.


People talk sometimes about “McGovernism.” Some even use it as a pejorative. But McGovernism means believing in basic American values—democracy, justice, the dignity of honest work, and never hesitating to embrace those values even when it is not popular. It’s courage combined with common sense. It’s recognizing our responsibility to face the hard questions—like the shame of hunger in America and the reality of the war in Vietnam.

McGovernism means believing that government has certain basic responsibilities, like guaranteeing civil rights and searching for ways to live peacefully with the rest of the world. It means choosing dialogue over blame, respect over division, hope over fear.

What made George a great public servant was not only his compassion and integrity. It was also his uncommon vision. As a senator, he saw connections others didn’t see—like the connection between piles of surplus grain in American’s heartland and hungry children in developing nations. That vision became the Food for Peace program, for which McGovern was the first director in 1961, and later the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program, launched in 2001, which has provided school meals to millions of children in 44 countries.

He also saw things sooner than others. In 1962, he said, “The most important issue of our time is the establishment of the conditions for world peace.” Nine months into his first term in the Senate, he began giving speeches about Vietnam. As early as 1970, he warned against over-reliance on our rapidly depleting energy supplies and urged the development of alternative energy sources. In 1984, after he left the Senate, he implored America’s leaders to show strong leadership in the search for peaceful change in the Middle East—years before most recognized the extent of the region’s instability.    

I believe America would be a better nation today if George McGovern had become president. Unfortunately, he did not get that chance. But that does not mean his campaign was a failure. Far from it. The 1972 campaign opened up the political process. It infused a new generation with a belief in what Eleanor once called “the politics of the impossible.” 

After that campaign George returned to the Senate wiser, but no less committed to his principles, and no less courageous. He earned enormous respect and admiration from colleagues that transcended partisan lines. When George left the Senate in 1981, he received accolades from both sides of the aisle. “On the surface, George McGovern and I should be poles apart,” Bob Dole said. “After all, he is a liberal Democrat, and I am a Republican of the moderately conservative stripe. He ran for President when I was national chairman of my party. I ran for vice-President against a ticket to which he gave his support. I suspect our voting records have disagreed more often than they have agreed. Yet in the most important ways, I regard George McGovern as a friend and a kindred spirit. He is a decent man who puts principle above expediency. You may not always go along with George, but you cannot fail to respect his motives. ... George McGovern will be remembered and honored as a great American.”

Another man who didn’t live to see him leave the Senate, but who knew him well as a close friend, said simply: “George McGovern is the most decent man in the U.S. Senate.” That man was Robert Kennedy. He offered his appraisal in South Dakota in 1968, two months before he died. 

Occasionally, George and I drove together as we traveled through South Dakota. George loved to drive. And he loved to speed. I remember one beautiful, starry summer night, going from Mitchell to Sioux Falls. We must have been going 95 miles an hour. Yet George kept gazing at the stars, talking about the gorgeous night sky, all the while driving at near three-digit speed down the highway.

I’m thinking, “Look at the darn road, George. Don’t look at the stars!”

Metaphorically and actually, George always plowed down the roads, his eyes focused on something distant and beautiful.

"We know that the Kingdom of God will not come from a political party's platform,” George told the Wheaton College students in 1972, as he was headed for a defeat that would have deeply disillusioned most of us. “We also know that if someone is hungry, we should give him food; if he is thirsty, we should give him drink; if he is a stranger, we should take him in; if he is naked, we should clothe him; if he is sick, we should care for him; and if he is in prison, we should visit him."

Those words encapsulate simply and powerfully the story of George McGovern's years on this earth.

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