Remembering McGovern: It was a privilege to know the senator from South Dakota

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Just three days after moving back to Pittsburgh from South Dakota last January, a small white envelope showed up in the mail with a Sioux Falls postmark. Inside was a handwritten card from George McGovern. "Congratulations on your promotion to Pittsburgh. That's one of my favorite cities. We'll, of course, miss you in South Dakota. All my best wishes, George."

I hadn't actually been promoted per se. I had simply resigned my position as a radio talk show host with South Dakota Public Broadcasting to take a similar job in my hometown. But in keeping with his self-deprecating manner, Sen. McGovern seemed to be joking that I had escaped the vast wilderness of his home state for the bright lights of the big city.

Mr. McGovern, who passed away Sunday at the age of 90, was a frequent guest on a show I hosted called "Dakota Midday." I was honored that he was also a regular listener and had made a point of telling me how much he enjoyed the program. Mr. McGovern had always been a staunch proponent of public broadcasting who was far more interested in cutting military spending than Jim Lehrer or Big Bird.

When George McGovern became the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, I was a student at Fulton Elementary School in Highland Park. I wore a "McGovern for President" button on my jacket and spent a lot of time at recess that fall explaining to my mostly disinterested classmates why McGovern was a better choice than Richard Nixon. Their feelings could best be summed up by the line Anthony Hopkins uttered as the title character in Oliver Stone's "Nixon": "Is that what you want ... to hand this country over to some pansy poet socialist like George McGovern?"

Of course, the courage Mr. McGovern had displayed as a decorated World War II bomber pilot proved he was no pansy. And he certainly was no socialist. Although as Democrats were deciding it was in their best interest to shy away from being called liberal, Mr. McGovern embraced the term.

My first interview with him came shortly after the publication of his book, "The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition." He defended liberalism as "the most practical and hopeful compass to guide the American ship of state." It was the first of many interviews I conducted with Mr. McGovern over what turned out to be the last eight years of his life.

What a privilege to know that I could pick up the phone and talk to someone whom I had always admired and who had been a part of so much history. No matter the occasion, he never turned me down. One such occasion was the day after Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, Mr. McGovern's running mate in the 1972 presidential race, had passed away. Mr. McGovern shared something with me that few people had known about how Mr. Shriver ended up on the ticket.

"Actually Sargent Shriver was on the short list even before [Missouri senator Tom] Eagleton," he said. "But we only had a few hours after I won the nomination to name my running mate. And when we tried to get a hold of Sargent Shriver we found he was traveling in Russia and we couldn't reach him. That was before cell phones came into the picture. But we had him up above Tom Eagleton on our list of running mates. I wish we had succeeded in that."

As it turned out, Sen. Eagleton was on the ticket first before dropping out when information surfaced that he had received shock treatment for depression. It was a setback from which the McGovern campaign never recovered. President Nixon was re-elected in an unprecedented landslide that included every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

"The day after the election Sargent Shriver came over and put an arm around me and said, 'George we may have lost 49 states but we never lost our souls.' I always appreciated that comment," said Mr. McGovern.

George McGovern went on to serve eight more years in the Senate before losing his seat in the Reagan landslide of 1980. But Mr. McGovern remained just as active and productive outside of politics. He worked as hard as any American ever has to end poverty and hunger, at home and abroad. And he continued to inspire young Americans as a teacher and author.

The last time I saw Mr. McGovern was last November at the annual McGovern Conference on the campus of his alma mater Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. He had been battling health problems but joined me on a live broadcast from the campus. I asked him what he thought of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"I think it's all right," he said. "I'm all in favor of the American people having the right to get into the streets and the parks and anywhere else and enter their protest because Wall Street was guilty of bad judgment. So were some of the major banks. They helped bring on this recession. I think the people have a right to walk through the streets carrying a sign saying that."

I had one last interview with Mr. McGovern last month on WESA to mark the 40th anniversary of his nomination for president at the 1972 Democratic Convention. Despite losing his presidential bid, Mr. McGovern had succeeded in opening up the nominating process to women and minorities. I asked him if he thought he would have been elected president had the world known the extent of Richard Nixon's involvement with the Watergate scandal prior to the general election.

"Absolutely. It would have been a walk in," said Mr. McGovern. "I can't imagine Nixon getting any votes once those scandals were revealed. But anyway, I don't go around moaning about that. I've been very happy in my life. I've enjoyed every year of it. But it would have been great to be president, too."


Paul Guggenheimer is the host of "Essential Pittsburgh" on 90.5 WESA, the NPR affiliate in Pittsburgh.


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