Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern, Man of Peace

George McGovern at Sargeant Shriver's
memorial service, 22 January2011.
Heroes. photo by Pool/Reuters.

George McGovern, former Senator from South Dakota, 1972 presidential candidate, political science professor, decorated WWII pilot, has died at 90 years old. 

The news saddens me, and takes me back many years to my introduction to politics.  It was the Vietnam War era.  I was a graduate student in American history in Madison, Wisconsin, exploring ideas and perspectives to which I had never been exposed.  I became swept up in the early “teach-ins” about the history of Vietnam and our intervention, the political activism of pioneering diplomatic historian William Appleman Williams and many of my fellow graduate students, and the general atmosphere of critical thinking and openness to new ideas.  The times “they were a’changing,” and so was I. They led me to a strong anti-war stance, and sometimes took me all over the ideological map.   

Now George McGovern is going to that place where my brother Loren may be. If they meet up, I can imagine the conversations, especially about the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns.  That’s when some of us were so opposed to the war that it moved us to extremes  It led to a kind of quiet desperation, and more and more overtime, not so quiet. Why are we in this strange land where we don't know friends from foes? why can’t we get out?  The death count is adding up.  We see the war on our TVs night after night. The horror. The use of something called "agent orange."   "Destroy a village in order to save it"? A massacre at My Lai?  It led some of us to support mavericks with strong anti-war positions, like poet Eugene McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota, and yes, professor George McGovern, articulate anti-war spokesperson.

The war, the activism, those elections, changed the course of American history.

Loren was fiercely opposed to the war, but he always maintained that from 1968 onward America lost the greatest opportunity it ever had to elect a truly compassionate statesman, a pioneer for civil rights, equal justice and international peace, another senator from Minnesota: Hubert Humphrey, then Lyndon Johnson's vice president.  We ranted and argued at the time.  Alas, Humphrey became a victim of the war, like Johnson himself, and like his domestic and civil rights policies.  We can’t have “guns and butter" many of us believed at the time, and still do.

But in hindsight, going back to George McGovern and 1972, I think Loren may have been on the right track. He saw ahead of us.  The war and that election changed the course of history. Richard Nixon became president and America suffered.  We went through Watergate, corruption, an ugly impeachment trial, and domestic turmoil.  Humphrey was cast off to the margins of political life.   

So was George McGovern. But I remember seeing him when I lived in Washington, going to the historic Foundry Methodist Church (where Abraham Lincoln attended) around the corner from where I lived in the Cairo Condo; walking along 16th Street and Dupont Circle enjoying the street life, and his freedom from politics it seemed.  He started Food for Peace and became involved in ending world hunger and poverty, sometimes speaking at Foundry about the issue.  He goaded us to give to the cause, and I was happy to. He didn’t remember my name, but he remembered me, always with a big smile, whenever our paths happened to cross. 

“Hi, Senator McGovern!”  
“Oh, hi, nice to see you!  Beautiful day!”

I remember the tragedy of his daughter’s cruel death in a snowstorm in Wisconsin, the result of an alcoholic stupor, so drunk she was unable to get herself out of the bitter cold and into safety.  She was found dead in a snowdrift.   I remember he and his wife praying at Foundry, and thinking about how tragic it would be to lose a child like this, in this way.  I think he walked with a slight stoop thereafter, his face down, his pain evident.

I once reminded him that besides Massachusetts and his home state of South Dakota, in that heated 1972 election, McGovern also won Lucas County in northwest Ohio. Just the county!  I know because I was part of that campaign; did lots of phone calling and door-to-door campaigning.   McGovern grasped my hand in gratitude. 

I still feel that firm grip, see that smile, hear his voice.  And I hear my brother’s voice, too. I wonder how different the world might be if we had not gone to war in Vietnam.  If peace reigned instead of war, if calmer voices prevailed over the cacophony of war drums.  George McGovern, one of the last members of that great generation that survived World War II, is taking another whole generation into the next life with him.   In that place, where Loren's soul resides, if there is such a place, there is no war and poets and philosophers, like McCarthy and McGovern, may hold court.     

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