I first saw George McGovern at a campaign rally in the Midwest in 1972, and I remember being struck by the contrast between the passionate, frenetic energy of the long-haired (mostly young) people attending, and the understated dignified demeanor of the balding, middle-aged man they came to see.
Exactly 30 years later, I saw McGovern again, this time in the Montana Public Radio studios, where I had the good fortune of interviewing him. By this time, McGovern and his wife were part-time residents of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley.
The interview topic was fighting hunger, a cause McGovern championed when his long U.S. Senate career ended. But of course the conversation drifted into politics as well.
The 80-year-old McGovern’s presence hadn’t changed – his style was still laconic, his voice a little raspier – and he spoke with that same direct South Dakota flatness that had somehow fired up that campaign crowd 30 years earlier.
I was reminded of my encounters with McGovern after hearing of his death early this week. His memorial service was held Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D.
It was never the senator’s style that put him in the forefront of history – it was his content.
He was right about the Vietnam War and about Richard Nixon’s presidency – both of which came to ignominious ends not long after Nixon crushed McGovern in the ’72 election.
In 2002, sitting in the Missoula studio, McGovern worried the country’s obsessive response to the 9/11 attacks would overshadow other important concerns.
“I want us to do what we can within reason to catch these terrorists and bring them to justice,” McGovern said. “But not at the expense of everything else that the country faces. I realize that it’s a terrible thing to lose 3,000 of our citizens in one day at the World Trade Center – but how many of us stop to think we lose 10,000 every day to hunger in the world?”
And McGovern was one of the first to call for an examination of the root causes of terrorism and religious fanaticism.
“Maybe if we were giving a little more attention to problems of hunger and misery and the sense of powerlessness that poor people feel,” said McGovern, “maybe that would be one way to reduce the amount of terrorist impulse in the world.”
McGovern told me he spent just over $30 million on his 1972 presidential run – that’s not a lot more than will be spent on this year’s Montana Senate race. He worried about the influence of money on politics – and about his beloved Democratic Party veering away from its core principles. He would likely consider his advice to the party a decade ago as still relevant today.
“For the Democrats to win they have to convince a majority of Americans that they have something … effective to offer,” said McGovern. “And then advocate it with courage and lay it out there. We may not win every election but over the long run I think a political party has to stand for something that’s clearly defined and speaks to the real problems that worry people.”
The laid-back gentleman sitting across from me with his Newfoundland dog, Ursa, resting at his feet, had experienced and witnessed profound personal and professional setbacks since that long ago campaign rally – but he was as convincing as ever in his belief that the world, with courage and effort and honor, could be a better place.
“I’m an optimist,” said McGovern. “I don’t believe the world is about to collapse. I think we’re moving into what may be the best 25 or 50 years the world has ever known.”
The tail end of another long, contentious election season may not seem like the best time to be reminded of optimism. I suspect the late Sen. McGovern would probably argue otherwise.
Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.