One night too many years ago, I was at work in the office when the newsroom phone rang. I answered it, and a male caller asked to speak to one of my reporters for a story she was doing. The voice sounded distantly familiar, and as soon as I said the reporter had left for the evening, I suddenly realized who it was, which the caller then quietly confirmed.
“This is George McGovern …”
That voice WAS so familiar: a slow, soft-spoken, thoughtful cadence — I recall one national reporter once describing it as a prairie drawl. It also sounded like it could have belonged to a minister, which McGovern, an Avon native, had once been earlier in his life.
This quiet man — a decorated World War II bomber pilot, a South Dakota two-term representative and three-term senator, a presidential nominee, a champion of peace and a warrior against hunger before he passed away in 2012 — would have turned 100 this past Tuesday. The milestone let me think about him for a moment, especially amid these volcanic political times.
I often wonder if there would be a place now for politicians like McGovern.
I’m not talking about ideology, although that was surely a defining aspect in his life.
He developed the conscience of a post-FDR liberal, and he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He captured the presidential nomination of a bitterly divided Democratic party in 1972, but America wasn’t ready to embrace his progressive views. He lost to incumbent Richard Nixon in a monumental landslide after a poorly run campaign hobbled by fatal missteps. As McGovern later joked, “I wanted to run for president in the worst way, and (in 1972), I did.”
After South Dakota voters ousted him from the Senate in 1980, he remained active in Democratic politics, running for president again briefly in 1984 promoting a progressive platform and championing family farmers.
WELFARE OF MANKIND
But the welfare of mankind was his real objective, especially when it came to fighting hunger. He did this for most of his adult life. What he saw in wartime Italy, where small children were begging and fighting for food in the streets, never left him. He was named by President John Kennedy as the director of the new Food for Peace program in 1961. At the time, McGovern argued, “We should thank God that we have a food abundance and use the over-supply among the underprivileged at home and abroad.” He later teamed with friend Bob Dole, a Republican and a fellow World War II veteran, to create a foundation dedicated to feeding hungry children throughout the world. (The two men were awarded the World Food Prize in 2008.) McGovern also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 for his work with hunger. He was named the United Nation’s first global ambassador on world hunger by the World Food Programme (WFP), which he had helped found decades earlier. He served as a goodwill ambassador for the WFP almost until his death.
There was more to McGovern than his catastrophic 1972 defeat, and history eventually began to acknowledge him as a man whose actions, whose spirit, whose very soul seemed to resonate in that familiar ministerial voice. It could be said of him that he lived by the word that he once preached as a minister through the ideals he pursued and the deeds he accomplished as a public servant. He became, as Joel Allen of the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan said, “one of the most effective crusaders against poverty and hunger the world has ever known.”
THE MODERN STAGE?
And yet, I wonder if there could be a place now for a servant like McGovern on a modern political stage cluttered with partisan, self-aggrandizing divas.
In terms of McGovern’s demeanor, I harbor doubts. He came from a mold of quieter politicians from another age, whether it was people like Harry Truman (at least outwardly, anyway) or Calvin Coolidge. Such politicians may have lacked the charisma that is now indispensable capital on 24-hour news programs, podcasts, social media and hit-and-run sound bites. It’s hard to see how the likes of McGovern would have dealt with the theatrics we see pass for political debate now.
That would be a tremendous loss if it is so.
We should all hope there is still a place for such dignified leaders — for people like McGovern — who, despite their reserve and their imperfections, could champion ideals as simple and as necessary as making sure children have enough to eat.
That’s what I always heard in McGovern’s voice throughout my childhood, when I saw him address a state newspaper convention or when I spoke to him ever so briefly and by chance on the phone long ago.
In his voice, I always heard the kind of man he was — the kind of man well worth remembering.
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