RIP George McGovern, 1922-2012
George McGovern, a three-term senator from South Dakota, was the 1972 Democratic standard bearer running against Richard Nixon. He was one of my personal heroes. He stood up for what he believed regardless of the political consequences. His vehement stance against the Vietnam war, even when that war was popular, defined him when he stood boldly against those who believed anyone who agreed with him was unpatriotic. He gave hope to a younger generation of anti-establishment idealists who finally found someone in power they could trust.
His campaign left a significant legacy, including his proposals, since fulfilled, that women be appointed to the Supreme Court and nominated for the vice presidency. He inspired scores of budding politicians: Bill Clinton was his Texas coordinator before becoming governor of Arkansas, then president. Gary Hart was his campaign manager before becoming a senator from Colorado, then a candidate for the White House.
McGovern was a die-hard idealist. His electoral loss embittered him, but not for long. He never abandoned his optimism or his faith in humanity. Neither did he give up his devotion to liberalism or what colleagues called his extraordinary sense of decency.
McGovern wasn’t your typical anti-war protestor, having been a war hero in World War II.
McGovern enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University and married classmate Eleanor Stegeberg on Oct. 21, 1943. But within months, he left to fly a B-24 in World War II. On his bunk, he read philosophy and history. The books broadened him, and he came home, he said, wanting to know more about “the nature and destiny of man, about the adequacy of our contemporary value system and the capacity of our institutions to nurture those values.”
He also returned a hero. On one of 35 missions against Nazi targets in Europe, he took hits that blew out most of the nose of the plane and wounded a gunner. Shrapnel cut the hydraulic brake and electrical lines. He ordered his crew to crank down the landing gear and tie parachutes to girders just inside the rear hatches. He landed and released the parachutes. Not a life was lost. McGovern was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
President Clinton awarded McGovern the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, America’s highest civilian honor. In 2008, he shared, with former Senator Bob Dole, the World Food Prize, considered the Nobel prize for combating hunger. His final book, in 2011, was What It Means to Be a Democrat where he offered his political philosophy:
Be compassionate, he urged. Put government to work to help the less fortunate. End hunger. Spend more for education. Protect the environment. Reduce military spending. And forge peace in the Middle East by listening to all parties.