George McGovern Revisited

On March 11, 2009, former Sen. George S. McGovern (D-SD), now 86, came to San Diego to speak at the La Jolla Public Library, answer questions, and sign copies of his new biography of Abraham Lincoln.

I had not seen McGovern in person since I last interviewed him in his U.S. Senate office in September 1978 for a magazine cover story. That was six years after he ran for president. In the generation since then, American politics, and everything else about life, has shifted tectonically.

McGovern and I go back a long way. Early in my career as a writer and reporter, as a student based in Washington, D.C., I gained intensive experience in national journalism by reporting on the 1972 presidential campaign from a front line perspective. In particular, I covered, traveled with, and did some media work (producing radio commercials aimed at young voters) for the candidacy of George McGovern, who won the Democratic nomination that year after running an innovative insurgent grassroots campaign. (I covered the announcement of his candidacy at the U.S. Capitol in January 1971.) Today, McGovern is remembered mostly for losing the 1972 general election to Republican President Richard M. Nixon by one of the largest landslides in U.S. history (winning only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts). He is also widely thought to be the archetypal left wing liberal.

Two years after the election, McGovern was re-elected to the U.S. Senate and I often reported on his activities on health care policy issues, which he took a special interest in. For example, in January 1977, a select committee that McGovern co-chaired, with Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS), issued a report, Dietary Goals for the United States, which proposed thehearing heretical notion that the typical American diet was associated with a higher incidence of chronic degenerative diseases. The testimony, public hearings, and documentation that the McGovern-Dole committee generated for about nine years (and then several more years as a subcommittee) seriously riled the U.S. medical Establishment, including the hidebound bureaucracies at the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. There is lingering controversy about Dietary Goals, but it was a landmark document ahead of its time. It gave a major boost to prevention and it provided credibility to pioneering researchers, clinicians, and proponents of alternative medicine and holistic and innovative health. They and others had insisted that diet is a major factor in disease causation but until Dietary Goals, their research had been given short shrift.

McGovern retired from the Senate in 1981 after losing his seat in the Reagan landslide of 1980. He has continued to be active, in both the private and public sectors, including writing thirteen books, teaching at the university level, running a hotel in Connecticut, and serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization from 1998-2001.

All these years later, then, I was interested to see the other night in La Jolla that the octogenarian McGovern, in action in front of a crowd of perhaps 200 people, was very McGovernreminiscent of the man whom I had covered, gotten to know, and developed considerable respect for more than three decades earlier.

That is to say, he came across as intelligent, thoughtful, soft spoken, modest, humorous, compassionate, friendly, spontaneous, likable, and very approachable - exactly as he was in the 1970s, if not more so. To his credit, he seemed to be as unlike the current crop of major national politicians as one could possibly be while still being a major political figure of historical note.

And this opinion comes from someone who disagrees with him on many, if not most, major issues! For example, early on in his talk in La Jolla, McGovern expressed his strong support for both universal health care and Barack Obama. For years, I have written extensively and critically about both subjects.

Unlike other (younger) politicians of the new order, however, McGovern genuinely seems to believe what he is saying, as opposed to simply repeating predictable talking points, and he offers his opinions without any stridency or arrogance. (How refreshing is that!) And for someone who might be put off by one or more of his opinions, his ideas are so wide ranging that within a few seconds he will be on to other topics, like ruminations on Abraham Lincoln or Mount Rushmore, which he can talk about with knowledge and originality, sounding like a scholar and not an ideologue.

In response to a question, McGovern had praise for conservative Republican William Bennett, and I don't recall him saying anything particularly disparaging about any other Republicans, either. He was cordial and attempted to answer the one loud heckler in the crowd with serious replies, despite being attacked as "another Neville Chamberlin."

In March of 2008, McGovern wrote an Op-ed, titled "Freedom Means Responsibility," published in the Wall Street Journal, that won praise at some right of center blogs for its conservative or even libertarian tone:

"Since leaving office I've written about public policy from a new perspective: outside looking in. I've come to realize that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society. . .

"The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else."

Last October, McGovern surprised many Democrats and again earned approval from conservatives bloggers by recording a TV ad opposing the Employee Free Choice Act, better known as Card Check, which is supported by Obama and most Democrats:

McGovern: "I've always been a champion of labor unions, but I fear that today's union leaders are turning their backs on democratic workplace elections. I've listened to all their arguments and reviewed the facts on both sides. Quite simply this proposed law cannot be justified."

This is not to suggest that McGovern is not a liberal; he certainly is. At the same time, he has always been a unique, independent, and somewhat anomalous figure in the Democratic Party. (See, for example, Bill Kaufmann's lengthy 2006 article about McGovern in The American Conservative.) He earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University but he was also a decorated fighter bomber pilot in World War II who flew 35 combat missions, the maximum number allowed, over Nazi-occupied territory in Europe. Today, McGovern seems more like a classic mid-20th Century American liberal. In other words, he appears to think independently on many core issues, occasionally bucking his party because of his principles. It should be recalled that his anti-Vietnam War positions in 1972, as well as in 1968 when he attempted to prevent the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey after Sen. Robert Kennedy's assassination, were very much opposed by the Democratic Party Establishment. In 1969, McGovern served as the chair of a commission that reformed how the party nominated its candidates, diminishing the importance of party bosses and enhancing the role of primaries and caucuses.

Seeing him again after so many years, I was touched that McGovern recognized and greeted me warmly after his Q&A and right before the book signing part of the program was to begin. We had a chance to reminisce a bit about the 1972 campaign, and he recalled the last time he had seen me in his Senate office and my article that had resulted from that interview.

Although lighting conditions at the library were very challenging, I took almost 200 digital photos as McGovern spoke, answered questions, and signed books. Reviewing them later, I saw the same face and the similar gestures and expressions - albeit marked with three more SIGNINGdecades' worth of life's experiences, including the deaths of his daughter Terry and his wife Eleanor -- in a way that only a professional photojournalist who takes thousands of pictures of a candidate over time might notice. In all of the photographs that I took of McGovern in action between 1971 and 1977, I had been impressed with these same things, certain qualities that still photographs can reveal about a person.

The theme of McGovern's 1972 campaign, as the Vietnam War still raged, was "Come Home, America." After being in McGovern's presence for 90 minutes on the evening of March 11, 2009 in La Jolla, and seeing him still in fine form, I felt that I had come home to, or had a chance to revisit with new perspectives and insights into, a significant part of my -- and America's -- past. And I wished that national politicians today, of the Left, and the Right, too, could display more of the same kind of humanity and decency as George McGovern.

Peter Barry Chowka is a widely published writer and investigative journalist who writes about politics, health care, and the media.
All photos © Peter Barry Chowka
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