George McGovern Near Death: Honoring An American Hero and Vietnam War Pacifist

George McGovern, the former U.S. senator from South Dakota, is nearing the end of his dignified life. As his family and friends say their final goodbyes and his is soon lifted into the palm of God’s hand, we remember and rejoice a life extraordinaire; a man imbued with compassion, humility, integrity, and faith in America. 

Though he was a bona fide war hero, having flown 35 missions as a B-24 pilot in World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery, George McGovern never spoke of it during his political career. Following his military heroics, he returned home to continue his education, ultimately earning a PhD in history and became a professor. Departing teaching to work for the state Democratic Party, McGovern himself sought office in 1956, becoming the first Democrat in 22 years from South Dakota elected to the House. Following two terms, he sought a Senate seat but lost. An ardent champion in the fight against hunger, President Kennedy appointed McGovern the first director of his Food for Peace Program. Much success was achieved during his tenure, improving health and economic development across the globe and at home. As an offshoot of his work, McGovern helped create the UN’s World Food Programme, the largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger. 

In 1962 McGovern was victorious in the state’s other Senate seat, the third Democratic senator from South Dakota since the state’s 1889 inception. The senator emerged as a leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and its most vocal opponent of Vietnam. When RFK was assassinated in June, 1968, McGovern was urged to pick up the fallen mantle, which he did, ultimately losing the nomination to vice president Humphrey. Through the primaries, McGovern would beat five Democratic candidates in 1972. His first pick for vice president ended in a sad failure as Senator Thomas Eagleton was found to have received electric shock treatments for depression and McGovern was forced to drop him from the ticket. He settled on another of our nation’s greatest public servants, founder of the Peace Corps and Ambassador to France, R. Sargent Shriver. McGovern/Shriver would lose, winning only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts. As a Bay Stater, I take pride in the legacy of the bumper stickers that emerged from that loss which stated emphatically, “Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts.”

McGovern told Playboy Magazine in 1971, “Some cynics feel that decency in a politician is a handicap. But I think a sense of decency ... not prudishness nor sanctimonious self-righteousness but old-fashioned concern and love for others ... will be essential in the next presidents. That’s the kind of president I want to be.” 

Sadly, he was denied that chance and two years later Watergate broke, wreaking a destructiveness on our public decency that has never recovered. Continuing in the Senate until 1980, he was defeated that year amid the Reagan Revolution. He would try again in 1984 to reach the White House and after a third-place finish in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, McGovern bowed out. Yet he invoked a message to his fellow democrats as they continued on in that fateful election year; “Don’t throw away your conscience,” McGovern implored at a debate in Iowa. He never did.

McGovern would go on to pen a number of well-received books on his career and thoughts on America’s future. Personal tragedy would darken his later years as he lost two of his children, a daughter, Terry, to hypothermia caused by her alcoholism, and his only son Steven, who passed this summer of alcoholism-related issues. McGovern would write a book about Terry and found a center in her name to help others deal with their struggles against substance abuse. His beloved wife, Eleanor, passed in 2007. As he turned 90 this July, George McGovern was still traveling the country he so loved, delivering lectures, speaking on panels, never ceasing his lifelong commitment to speak truth to power, never acquiesce in the face of cynicism, and follow his conscience in an effort to make more gentle the life of this nation. In 1998, President Clinton (who had worked for McGovern in ‘72) appointed the senator as United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. He and former Senator Bob Dole contributed to world hunger cessation, establishing the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program, bringing over 22 million meals to children in 44 nations in its first eight years. 

McGovern believed, like most in his generation, that the American Dream was only possible through a collective effort of all citizens and that the country prospers when everyone thrives, our greatness derived from a unified commitment to the greater good. When a Nixon supporter heckled McGovern as he worked a rope line at a rally saying that Nixon would beat McGovern so bad in the election that he would wish he never left South Dakota, McGovern said to the young man, “I’ve got a secret for you.” Leaning in to whisper in the man’s ear, McGovern said, “Kiss my ass.” He may have been anti-war in policy but he was no pacifist in spirit. 

In the moving eulogy of his brother Robert, Ted Kennedy expressed a sentiment equally true of George McGovern, that he “be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” 

American political leaders would do well to emulate McGovern’s example, for he epitomized the role of public servant as an honorable profession. We must rededicate ourselves to the higher calling George McGovern dared us to realize in his “Come Home, America” campaign theme. A line from a Langhorne Slim song asks, “Where do the great ones go when they’re gone?” Thank you, senator, for leaving an indelible mark on the American character. You were one of the truly greats.