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Remembering George McGovern

Posted by Jim Johnson on

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson

Editor's Note: This week's blog was written before news of George McGovern's death was made public.

As I write this, George McGovern is in the last stage of his life. At last report he is in hospice care, surrounded by family and "resting comfortably". A quiet and most fitting life end for a man possessed with compassion and eloquence and not prone to the seduction of ego and vanity.

While he will be forever known for a moment in the national spotlight as the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate and the crushing defeat he suffered to Richard Nixon, his life should be remembered for the decades of silent work he has done on behalf of those without a voice: the poor and the hungry. Such is the nature of an elegant life lived largely in relative obscurity.

Forty years ago McGovern was defeated in what at that time was the largest landslide in American history, 61% to 37%. He failed to even carry his home state. A passionate antiwar advocate, McGovern's campaign was plagued by a lack of resources and a less than candid vice-presidential pick, Senator Tom Eagleton of Missouri.

Eagleton, just prior to his selection had offered himself as an "unnamed Democratic senator" to conservative journalist Robert Novak. Eagleton was quoted as saying, "The people don't know George McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot. Once Middle America—Catholic Middle America, in particular [Eagleton was Catholic] – finds this out he's dead."

Not long thereafter, Eagleton accepted the McGovern offer of the VP slot only to be forced off the ticket in August of 1972 after he failed to disclose his multiple electroconvulsive therapy treatments.

Eagleton played the part of Brutus flawlessly and crippled a campaign which already knew the outcome of the election but fought valiantly to convey a message about the Vietnam War. Defeated by Nixon, himself a dark Shakespearian character, McGovern returned to the Senate and subsequently developed a significant corpus of meaningful work.

We tend to harshly judge those who finish second in presidential elections. Most recently, Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic stated:

"But ours is a people who are dismissive of men who lose presidential elections. We behave as though the electoral outcome discredited their ideas, even on matters where they're ultimately proved right."

McGovern has been ridiculed by lesser men possessed more by clamor than character. In recent years he has been consistently derided by Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Shawn Hannity— three men who kind of… sort of… forgot to serve their country. McGovern, by contrast, was a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism.

For decades McGovern has been a steady presence first in the Senate and more recently on the world stage as a constant force fighting world hunger. He never asked for nor sought attention. Instead he demonstrated his devotion to people over politics.

So much is not widely known or appreciated about George McGovern. This is a man who:

  • Earned a PhD in history from Northwestern University and held faculty positions at universities in the United States and Europe.
  • Felt so strongly about ending the Vietnam War that in the 1970s he took out a second mortgage on his own home to fund a half-hour NBC panel discussion on the conflict.
  • Formed the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, an entity which has helped to provide meals to hundreds of thousands of school children.
  • In 1998 was named by President Clinton as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agency for Food and Agriculture.
  • In 2000 together with another former presidential candidate, Senator Bob Dole, formed the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Fund for Education and Nutrition Program which alone has provided food to millions of children in over 41 countries.
  • Was appointed as the first United Nations Global Ambassador on World Hunger.
  • Had his war experiences chronicled in the Stephen Ambrose best-selling book, The Wild Blue.

McGovern warned us of the peril of unnecessary war. Through his personal experience he knew all too well that sometimes war is justified. Increasingly he recognized that all too often it is not. We could have learned valuable lessons from Professor McGovern but we as a nation elected to skip his most important course in life.

Forty years ago next month I cast my first vote in a presidential election for George McGovern. He was the antiwar candidate and I was an antiwar activist. He lost the election and, by virtue of the Nixon victory, my nation lost its soul.

Whenever you leave us, George McGovern, I wish you as the traditional Naval Officer salute suggests: "Fair Winds and Following Seas." May history treat you far kinder than the America you served.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.


Currently Speaking host Andy Rapp

Veteran journalist Andy Rapp has been hosting Currently Speaking since 1999.

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