George McGovern, son of the prairie: He was so much more than the presidential candidate who lost to Nixon
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Shortly after his 1984 landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan, Walter F. Mondale found himself standing alongside George S. McGovern at a luggage carousel on the bottom level of the old Washington National Airport. Mr. Mondale posed a plaintive question to Mr. McGovern.
"George," he asked the former South Dakota senator, who lost 49 states in his presidential race more than a dozen years earlier, "how long does it take for the hurt to wear off?"
"Fritz," Mr. McGovern said to the former vice president, who also lost 49 states, "I'll call you when it does."
For Mr. McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, the hurt never fully went away, lingering with him largely because his loss was to Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in disgrace two years later.
But though the sting of defeat remained, Mr. McGovern lived long enough to witness the end of the use of his name as a synonym for wild-eyed liberalism and feckless pacifism. And while it would be a stretch to say that today we are all McGovernites, many Americans -- veterans of World War II and the Vietnam peace movement alike, along with veterans of the Senate, including a surprisingly large number of Republican lawmakers who were his friends and admirers -- happily describe themselves that way.
Owing to his stand against the Vietnam War, Mr. McGovern in 1972 rarely discussed his war record. But in the years that followed, the dimensions of his World War II heroism, displayed in the crucible of three dozen B-24 Liberator missions in Europe that won him the Distinguished Flying Cross, emerged. He also earned plaudits for his groundbreaking work as a senator in the fight against hunger at home and abroad and for his service as ambassador to the United Nations food and agricultural agencies.
"We'd have our debates on the Senate floor, but as years passed we got closer and closer and worked on a lot of things together," recalled Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas, who was the unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee in 1996 and who joined Mr. McGovern as a co-sponsor of food-stamp legislation. "A lot of people said we were doing all the hunger stuff to help the farmers in our states. I never knew a farmer who praised food stamps."
Mr. Dole, not ordinarily an emotional man, added this just after the two -- one aged 89, the other 90 -- emerged from hospital stays earlier this year: "I feel for him and he feels for me."
Mr. McGovern was the son of a Methodist preacher and grew up in South Dakota. During the years of his prominence it was often posited that the gravel of the prairie was lodged in his voice. He was forever identified with Mitchell, S.D., bragging about its unusual Corn Palace the way the young Bill Clinton, working for Mr. McGovern in Texas in 1972, boasted about the sweet, giant watermelons of Arkansas.
Mr. McGovern won opprobrium from conservatives for his outspoken anti-war position -- a passion that prompted him to run for president after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was killed in 1968, and then again in 1972. His opponents ridiculed him as a proponent of "amnesty, abortion and acid," a trifecta of liberalism at a time of deep, bitter divisions in the country. This was a potent but not entirely fair critique.
"He was no mad radical," recalled Frank Mankiewicz, the campaign's press secretary. "He was a New Dealer who believed in government helping people, but was no socialist. He was a self-reliance guy. But he felt if the weather made your crops fail, maybe you should get a little help."
Eventually Mr. McGovern grew proud of his 1972 effort, which he considered a victim of Watergate-era dirty tricks, though his sloppy vetting of his vice-presidential selection, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri, a onetime shock-treatment patient, did him little credit.
In later years, Mr. McGovern lived modestly in both senses of the word. In his bungalow just off the beach in St. Augustine, Fla., a single McGovern-for-president poster near the staircase was the only furnishing that set him apart from other retirees on his cul-de-sac. He often visited an unprepossessing restaurant -- you might even call it a dump -- right on the sand. He liked the grilled fish sandwich with a mound of fries -- and the company, predominantly beach bums, aging but well-tanned.
"Businesslike, workmanlike, conscientious, without any marks of conceit or flamboyance" was how former Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey, a New Hampshire conservative who seldom voted with Mr. McGovern, described the man who sat on the other side of the aisle during the two years they served together.
"He is a soft-spoken man, kind and gentle -- always a gentleman," said Mr. Humphrey, a Tea Party Republican long before today's strong blend was brewed. "Even though we were miles apart in philosophy and experience, he treated me with respect and was helpful where he could be, while other liberal lions were trying to eat me for breakfast."
For all the symbolism and shibboleths attached to him, Mr. McGovern wasn't showy, accomplishing more in inconspicuous but indispensable work in the Senate than as a presidential candidate.
"He was a working member of the Senate, not a gadfly," said Ira Shapiro, author of "The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis." "He was the epitome of the great senators of the 1960s and 1970s -- giants like Jacob Javits, Everett Dirksen, Howard Baker, Gaylord Nelson and Birch Bayh," said Mr. Shapiro. "He was every bit their equal."
Where Mr. McGovern, who earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern and wrote an acclaimed biography of Abraham Lincoln, may have had no equal was in an arena far from Washington -- the prairie classroom.
As a young man he returned to his alma mater, tiny Dakota Wesleyan University, fired with intellectual energy, and he imparted that fire to his students.
"I was a freshman coming out of a town of 500 and we were reading Lincoln Steffens and Montague, writers I didn't know even existed before his course," said Dorothy Schwieder, who later became a historian herself at Iowa State University. "He exposed us to important readings and big ideas. I ended up majoring in history but really I majored in George McGovern."
Scores of people he touched, many of whom contentedly voted for Nixon in 1972, could say much the same thing.
First Published October 22, 2012 12:00 am