I write this post in honor of George McGovern, who is now in hospice, and as the family announced, at the end of his life. He remains a most remarkable man and one of those politicians that history will recall with kindness. The thoughts and prayers of a very grateful nation go to the former senator and his family in these hours.
When I attended a lecture by George McGovern during a stop at UW-Madison in 2005 I was struck by the calm and reasoned nature of someone I had long respected and admired.
I looked over my notes from that night and wish to share some memories.
When asked about the role of character when selecting a leader of the nation his words were softly spoken, but struck to the heart of the matter.
The 1972 Democratic nominee for president started out by saying that we need more civility and respect in government. He stopped his answer, and then stated matter of factly that it is not good enough to say whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat, but instead “needs to tell me what he honestly believes regardless of if I agree or not.”
The person seeking office must have ” a solid moral underpinning” with old-fashioned ethics he reminded those listening. It was a lesson McGovern lived as a politician, and as a man.
I posed the question as to what happened to President Nixon in this regard, and McGovern told the audience that the president had forgotten his constitutional oath, and his moral principles were lost.
When I asked him to define Richard Nixon, there was no doubt McGovern was fair with his words. He mentioned China, détente, and environmental legislation and paid tribute to the works of the man who defeated him at the ballot box. There was no rancor in his tone, no hidden pain from a bitter defeat.
But McGovern was honest.
Richard Nixon ran on fear, he had “no use for hope, charity, faith.” But he added that Nixon was bright, and “intelligent”.
It was at this time McGovern delighted the crowd with one of the big applause lines of the night in response to my question.
“I wished he (RN) was in the White House today as opposed to what we have.” Then he added with a slight pause for the best effect and added, ” I can say that safely since Nixon is on the other side of the great divide.”
There was sincerity of an aging politician on display that night who could look back and reflect with a large group of people.
“I shed some tears on Election Night,” he stated to the packed auditorium.
Over the years there was correspondence between the two aging politicians.
In 1984 McGovern stated he wrote to Nixon, and when RN penned a book would always send a copy to the senator.
The most meaningful line from that evening was when McGovern stated “there has never been a day that I have been ashamed to stand up for what is right.”
That is when I could tell that the younger college age crowd was paying attention. The strength of one’s convictions seems (sadly) less a standard today in politics, but McGovern was saying that ideals matter, as does consistency.
There are many politicians of all stripes, but few as honorable or decent as the soft-spoken, and big-hearted man who remained a proud liberal.
George McGovern remains one of the best this nation ever had.
One of my memories that I will always carry with me was the chance to meet George McGovern, and thank him for his service to our nation.