Today Senator George McGovern, one of the giants of modern American liberalism, passed away. He was a war hero, a historian, a humanitarian, a peacemaker, a dealmaker, a patriot, an exceptional public servant, and an unapologetic champion of the power of the government to make the world a better place. Many years ago when I was in high school in Alaska, I found myself sitting alone at a table in the library with Senator McGovern. He was in Anchorage to give a speech on "Strained Alliances and US Foreign Policy" at the Alaska World Affairs Council. I think he had gone to the library to be alone and collect his thoughts, but I said hello and he asked me to join him. We talked for over an hour, just the two of us, and he made a lasting impression on me. How incredible it was that this famous man so generously gave his time and attention to a nobody, pimple-faced young teenager. That kindness boosted my self esteem and encouraged me to get involved in politics. More on that in a moment...
George McGovern flew 35 missions over German-occupied Europe in WWII. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. After he came home, he earned a Ph.D. and became a history professor before being elected to the US House of Representatives from South Dakota. He served two terms before being named by President Kennedy as the first head of the Food for Peace Program (which was run out of the White House). Arthur Schlesinger called the FFPP "the greatest unseen weapon of Kennedy's third-world policy".
In 1962, Mr. McGovern was elected to the Senate. As Democrats were the minority in South Dakota, Senator McGovern had to collect at least a third of his support from Republicans (which he did for several decades). A year after being elected, bothered by the "Buddhist crisis" in Vietnam, McGovern gave a little noticed speech in which he said, "The current dilemma in Vietnam is a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power ... [Current U.S. involvement] is a policy of moral debacle and political defeat ... The trap we have fallen into there will haunt us in every corner of this revolutionary world if we do not properly appraise its lessons." Two years later, he courageously declared, "We are not winning in South Vietnam ... I am very much opposed to the policy, now gaining support in Washington, of extending the war to the north." His instincts were right, from the beginning, though few people listened to him at that point.
In 1972, Senator McGovern won the Democratic nomination for president, advocating a rapid end to the Vietnam war. He also angered party stalwarts by endorsing gay rights. His stood with Cesar Chavez in Phoenix during the "fast of love" on behalf of migrant farm workers. His campaign manager was Gary Hart, and Bill and Hillary Clinton managed his campaign in Texas. At some point during the campaign he was continually heckled by a Nixon supporter. Calling the man over to him, he said in his ear, "Listen, you-son-of-a-bitch, why don't you kiss my ass?" At the next rallies, "KMA" buttons were worn by his supporters. But despite his spirited attempt, he lost the popular vote 61 to 37%; and the electoral college 520 to 17. He was treated terribly by Democrats after the defeat. At major functions he was persona non grata. He and his wife actually contemplated leaving the country. But as a senator he continued his legislative accomplishments, including the promotion of national dietary guidelines. And his campaign, as well as the Democratic Party reforms that he put in place, opened the door to the coalition of activists, youth, women, and progressives that comprise the Party to this day.
He was swept out of the Senate by the Reagan Revolution in 1980. He then formed a liberal political organization to counter the Moral Majority and other right wing groups. He taught at universities in the US and Europe, joined a think tank, and ran for president again in 1984. In 1988 his foray into business (a hotel in Connecticut), ended in bankruptcy, but he continued to have success in humanitarian endeavors. In 1991 he became president of the Middle East Council. In 1998 he was appointed by President Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. And in 2000 he was awarded the the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his humanitarian service in the effort to eradicate world hunger.
During the Bush administration, McGovern was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, comparing it to the Vietnam war. In January 2008, McGovern wrote an op‑ed in the Washington Post calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, saying they had violated the U.S. Constitution, transgressed national and international law, and repeatedly lied to the American people.
On October 16, 2008, McGovern and Dole were made World Food Prize laureates (The George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program provided 22 million meals to children in 41 countries in eight years). Senator McGovern was a prolific writer, authoring 14 major books, including the 2012 publication of What It Means to Be a Democrat. Reviewing the work, Tom Brokaw observed that "George McGovern remains one of the country's most decent and thoughtful public servants."
That day in late May 1982, Senator McGovern told me it wasn't enough to want to get involved in politics; I needed to actually do it. He suggested that I go down to the campaign headquarters of the Democratic candidate for governor (Bill Sheffield) and and volunteer. I did so the next day. I asked to speak to the volunteer coordinator. I told him I had met with Senator George McGovern the day before and we agreed that I should do something substantial on this campaign. He practically patted me on the head and handed me a stack of envelopes to stuff. Licking envelopes was fine for a few weeks, but I was precocious and restless. Within a few months, I had maneuvered through and around the volunteer hierarchy and landed in Bill Sheffield's executive offices. His closest staff soon adopted me, and protected me, and I got to be in the room during a lot of sensitive discussions. It was a bitter campaign against Republican Tom Fink (incidentally, three of his kids would later become some of my dearest friends). I used to bring Mr. Sheffield his updated schedule at the end of the day and he would say to me, "Did you give me any time off tomorrow?" I was there every day. I arrived after school and stayed late. I was there long hours on the weekends. Whatever the executive staff needed, I did. Then one day they decided to put me in charge of the symbolic but high-profile mock vote by high school students around the state. It was my chance to be the mock campaign manager! We won that vote and got a lot of great press because of it. Bill Sheffield was pleased with me.
On election night I was privileged to be appointed the liaison to Bill Egan -- the first (and fourth) Governor of Alaska. Gov. Egan called in election returns from his poll watchers, which I would take to the private office of the campaign manager and Bill Sheffield. There were only three or four other people allowed in that room, and I got to linger and learn a great deal. Sheffield won the election 46 to 37% (the Libertarian candidate taking nearly 15%). Had I not still been in high school, I was told I would have been offered a job in the new administration.
George McGovern inspired me to get involved in politics at an early age, and I was hooked. But perhaps more importantly to me, he influenced my sense of self worth at a time when I really needed it. His act of kindness that day in the library pushed me in a direction that contributed greatly to my growth and success. And there is another thing that I think of when I remember George McGovern. When he told me never to quit, it meant something. He had been defeated, shunned, and left for dead in the political graveyard. But he didn't give up and he never gave in. Instead he went on to receive our nation's highest civilian honor, and he continued to work to combat hunger and promote peace. That's what being a true winner, and a hero, is all about.