Remembering George McGovern

Getting to know George McGovern – who died Sunday morning at age 90 – as a friend, collaborator, co-author and co-teacher has been among my proudest and most fulfilling experiences.

As a 15 year-old high school sophomore, I volunteered for his 1972 presidential campaign. McGovern won my county (one of the few in the South that went Democratic that year), but lost the state and the nation in a near-record landslide, thanks in large part to attacks by the right wing of the Democratic Party during the primaries and the dirty tricks by the campaign of incumbent President Richard Nixon during the fall campaign.
These illegal acts, along with the resulting cover-ups, eventually led to impeachment procedures that forced Nixon’s resignation. Polls taken less than a year after the election showed that, if the election had been held then, McGovern would have won.

He later told me in a 1993 interview that the campaign was “the most creative, stimulating and courageous presidential campaign I’ve ever witnessed. We took head-on the fundamental questions facing the country. Even though we lost, I don’t have any regrets that we tried.” I told him I couldn’t agree more.

A former student of mine once described how she had “felt dirty” campaigning for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a strong supporter of the Iraq War who had made a series of false claims about alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” to justify his vote to authorize that illegal invasion and occupation.

By contrast, none of us felt dirty campaigning for McGovern. We knew our candidate would never fabricate nonexistent threats to justify foreign conquests. As he once put it, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Indeed, it was McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War for which he is most remembered. Despite being a bomber pilot World War II – and one of the most highly-decorated veterans to ever run for president – his principled opposition to that immoral and unnecessary war resulted in ridicule from both Republicans and much of the Democratic Party establishment. Despite being a strong advocate for US engagement in the world, including humanitarian intervention, he was falsely labeled as an isolationist for his opposition to illegal and unilateral military interventions in support of autocratic allies. And, despite his belief in a strong military, he was depicted as a naïve pacifist because of his concerns about excessive military spending.

McGovern and Hunger
The cause for which McGovern most wanted to be remembered, however, was the struggle against world hunger, inspired in part by the enormous poverty he witnessed growing up in rural South Dakota during the Great Depression and the dustbowl.

Toward the end of McGovern’s second term in the US House of Representatives in 1960, President John F. Kennedy named him as the first director of Food for Peace, which helped provide US agricultural surpluses to nations experiencing food shortages. When he was elected to the US Senate two years later, he began 18 years as an influential member of the Senate Agricultural Committee, where he became a passionate advocate for small farmers and for the hungry, both at home and abroad. In 1998, President Bill Clinton – who, as a young man, managed McGovern’s presidential campaign in Texas – appointed McGovern as US ambassador to the United Nations agencies in Rome, where he represented the United States at the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agricultural Development until 2001.

In 1999, wanting some new ideas, George asked me to help him write a new book on world hunger, the result of which was “The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time.”* (The title makes reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” the third of which was, “freedom from want.”) There were some real differences in our approaches, with McGovern steeped in liberal New Deal-style solutions while I was influenced by the more radical analyses of Food First and other leftist structural critiques. We learned from each other, however. Despite some disagreements regarding trade policies, GMOs and some other things, it ended up being an effective collaboration and the final product was a solid liberal/radical synthesis, which proposed realistic steps to eliminate hunger by 2020.

Scholar and Family Man
Despite Republican efforts to link him with some of the excesses of the 1960s, George McGovern was always a deeply religious family man. The son of a Methodist minister and heavily influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement, he entered Divinity school at Garrett Theological Seminary, but later enrolled in the graduate program in History at Northwestern University under the noted historian Arthur S. Link – who considered him the best student he had ever taught. McGovern’s 450-page doctoral dissertation on the 1913-14 Colorado coal strike was a sympathetic portrayal of the miners’ revolt in the epic coalfield wars against Rockefeller interests.

Had he been elected president, McGovern would have been the only president besides Woodrow Wilson with a PhD. He taught history and political science at his alma mater Dakota Wesleyan prior to entering politics.

And he was an outstanding college teacher. In 2005, he and I co-taught a course on US Foreign Policy since 1945, during winter term at the University of San Francisco. In those 20 classes, he kept students’ attention not just by his engaging style of lecturing and command of that history, but the fact that he lived the subject matter, including serving 18 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

McGovern was a top-notch debater in college, one reason Nixon refused his calls for a debate during the 1972 campaign. He met his wife Eleanor when they competed against each other in a tournament in which he suffered a rare defeat. They were married for 62 years until her death five years ago, and raised five children. Despite this, and being a devout Methodist, he was defeated for re-election in 1980 by a closeted gay Republican who was supported by the Christian Right and campaigned on a conservative “family values” platform.

George and Eleanor had put a lot time and attention assisting their daughter Terry, who struggled with alcoholism. When she was found dead in a snow bank outside a Wisconsin bar in 1994, rather than keep quiet so to avoid embarrassing publicity, McGovern instead went very public – writing a powerful memoir on her struggle and their efforts to save her. Taking advantage of his status as a public figure, he embarked on a book tour and a series of interviews and lectures on the disease of alcoholism, leading hundreds of victims and their families to seek help.

His subsequent books (“The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition” and “What it Means to Be a Democrat”) emphasized the importance of proudly embracing liberal values as the party he once headed continued to move to the right. Despite this, in 2007 he endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton – a favorite of the party establishment – for president. The following April, however, I convinced him to rescind his endorsement and endorse Barack Obama, who was by then on the verge of winning the nomination. Part of what won him over were the parallels I drew between what she was doing to Obama and what Hubert Humphrey had done to him at a comparable period in the 1972 primaries -attempting to re-write the delegate selection rules ex post facto to steal the nomination, and attacking him from the right in a manner that would provide fodder for the Republicans in the fall campaign. Still respected as an elder party statesman, others soon followed McGovern’s lead and Clinton withdrew from the race not long afterwards.

Public opinion polls today indicate that, on most issues, the majority of registered Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents are closer to McGovern than to either Clinton or Obama. Yet, the idea of someone like McGovern getting the presidential nomination today seems quite remote since, in McGovern’s words, both parties “are now feeding out of the same trough” of special interest money when it comes to campaign financing. Yet McGovern never gave up hope that through a combination of popular movements and electoral politics, we could “come home” to reclaim the best of American values of justice, fairness and real democracy. With his passing, it is that hope and that legacy we need to embrace more than ever.

*In order to keep the narrative in the first person and to make it not appear to be ghost-written, my name isn’t on the cover, but I was responsible for about one-quarter of the content.