George McGovern has died. He was 90 at the time of his death in Sioux Falls.
Permit me a memory of a great man and humanitarian.
October 21, 2005 – 7 years ago today, it was a Friday – at the Bell Museum Theater at the University of Minnesota, we went to see the film about George McGovern: “For One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern“. As I recounted below, in P&J #968 on October 23, 2005, we apparently sat very near him, and afterwards I stood in line to get an autographed copy of his book, described below. I still have that book. Here’s the cover and his autograph: G McGovern Ending Hunger001
Here’s what I wrote, after that evening:
I remember I voted for George McGovern in 1972 and before him Hubert Humphrey in 1968 – from the earliest I never felt any trust for Nixon.
But other than that, politics was for me, then, a pretty passive activity.
Friday night in a little less than three hours many of the blanks of that time period were filled in for me.
The new documentary, For One Bright Shining Moment, The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, brought it all back.
We watched the documentary only a few seats away from George McGovern himself, who spoke and answered questions before and after the showing. We and several hundred others had One Bright Shining Moment in the soft-spoken but powerful presence of greatness. (What I heard him say is at the end of this P&J).
It was a peak moment for me.
The ‘60s and early 70s passed me by, politically, though I was voting age the whole time, and voted. Life happened for me, then, and was too great a distraction.
In the climactic political year of 1968 I was in my third years as a single parent of a youngster who had just turned four – his Mom had died in 1965. I knew that Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for a second term in ‘68; I knew of the chaos surrounding the Democratic convention in Chicago. Heroes fell early that year, and not only in Vietnam: Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy. I remember a short by-myself-in-my-’65-Volkswagen-bug geography tour through the east in August of ’68, driving through part of the wreckage that was post-riot Washington D.C. (map here)
In 1972, when Nixon steam-rollered George McGovern, winning 49 of 50 states in the greatest Presidential election rout in American history, I was in a brand new job doing something I had never done before: staff person for a large public employee union bargaining its first contract under my state’s first full-fledged collective bargaining law for public employees. A competing union wanted our status as exclusive representative and that and the companion contract negotiations were too big distractions. (We prevailed in that political campaign, and got our first contract that late summer.)
In between, before and after, Vietnam raged. For awhile in the late fall of 1969 one of my brothers stayed with us for awhile; he was a fighter bomber pilot in Vietnam whose plane had gone down in a mid-air refueling collision over Thailand, and he got lucky – his only damage some burns that had him in hospital and then on leave for some months.
May 4, 1970, the tragedy at Kent State happened. And so it went.
The film views the 60s through the lens of file footage, and through interviews with several people, most of whose names will be instantly recognizable to anyone old enough to remember that time in history.
I think McGovern was a candidate of real substance in the insane (to me) game of U.S. killer national and even state and local politics. Politics is not a game for the weak of ego. A WWII bomber pilot, McGovern’s passion was for an end to the Vietnam War…even when he was virtually a lone voice. He identified with the powerless more so than most in the political game. His Army of volunteers created a grassroots organization seldom seen in this country and reflected the best that is the U.S. His was a powerful campaign that in the end ‘flamed out’ for reasons which each can see (and many of my age remember) for themselves. Still, even in the end, 40% of the voters in this country voted for him. His is a political career that progressives ought to study carefully.
Hubert Humphrey does not get too kind a portrayal in the film, and maybe that’s the gentle criticism Mr. McGovern expressed about it before we saw it – though he wasn’t specific. But Humphrey was an extremely competitive man – you don’t get to even vice-president without a ‘killer instinct’ – and when one of you, there in the same auditorium, said you didn’t care for the small Humphrey-bashing aspect of the film I thought of a little quote of HHH which I included in last years Christmas letter.
McGovern remains a passionate person, and ending hunger in our time (we bought his book “The Third Freedom Ending Hunger in Our Time”) is at the top of his list. This is not a new passion for him. JFK had him as Special Assistant for a new Food for Peace program 1961-63.
Someone asked Mr. McGovern to comment on what he would do, today, if in the office of commander in chief.
As I recall it, he said he would do four things:
1) Get our troops our of Iraq
2) Re-deploy the National Guard and Reserves, and the vast resources spent on Iraq, to rebuild the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina
3) Reinstitute some form of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) of the 1930s.
4) Write a ‘one sentence bill’ (he called it) extending Medicare initially to every child six or under, thenceforth every year further expanding Medicare until everyone is covered.
Someone else inquired about the general task of Liberal message development. His answer was quite succinct. After saying that this country needs more than just one hugely dominant political party, he suggested that Conservatives, when confronting Liberals, be asked two simple questions: 1) what are some popular initiatives supported and advanced by Liberals which were opposed by Conservatives (things like Social Security and many other initiatives come to mind; 2) what are some Conservative successes that were supported by Liberals (things like the Interstate Highway System come to mind.) The succinct suggestion is that Conservatives come around, ultimately embracing things they originally tried to defeat; Liberals are more open to positive changes that impact people’s lives in a positive way. Liberal initiatives tend to benefit the greater number for the greater good. (Who coined the phrase, “if you want to live Republican, vote Democrat”)?
But that’s just my opinion of what he said.
Others may differ.
Go see the film.
PS: He offered a comment about a visit to Houston to visit the ‘refugees’ as he called them in the wake of Katrina. He recalled visiting with a man who had a wife and five children. He asked the man why he didn’t leave before the storm struck. The man said he didn’t have a car, and when the hurricane struck (which was, after all, at the end of the month) they had $6 to their name. If he had managed to get them out of town, they wouldn’t have been able to afford a place to stay, and all of the uncertainty led them to stay, so he boarded up his windows, hoping they could ride it out. McGovern said that was one of several similar stories he heard.
from Kathy: Also, McGovern wrote a book called Terry about the pain of his daughter Terry’s alcoholism.
Molly: Thanks, Dick. I forwarded it to a friend who spent most of her life in SD, and was also a devoted fan. This was perfect for a day I knew she’d be doing some grieving.
Mike: In 1992 Pat and I were in DC for the Clinton inauguration and we went to a post inauguration reception at one of the House Office Buildings. The MN House delegation were the hosts, but McGovern was there as well, greeting people with mutual acknowledgements of their help. Guests thanking McGovern for coalescing the progressives into a more powerful body, while the senator thanked them for their work to get Clinton elected.
I believe when our daughter Leah received her MBA in 1992 from St. Thomas, McGovern delivered the commencement address. Her in-laws (committed Republicans) attended and McGovern was probably the last person they would have wanted to hear speak.
George McGovern has died. He was 90 at the time of his death in Sioux Falls.