George McGovern: Remembering the Politician who Won South Dakotans Over by a Landslide

The critics said he was too decent to be president – too soft, too compassionate, too good. They saddled him with the mantra “amnesty, abortion, and acid” and discredited his anti-war stance, in spite of the fact that he was a decorated war hero. They mistook his humility and aversion to political mudslinging as signs of weakness. They relentlessly reminded America that he had lost his presidential bid…by a landslide.

But I hope these same critics now realize what so many devoted followers recognized back in 1972 —  that George McGovern was the ultimate patriot, a man who cared enough about his country to call her to “a higher plain.”

And I wish that all Americans had seen the man, not just the politician, that many of us in rural South Dakota were privileged enough to know (at least in some small way).

I wish they had seen the way he brought history alive for his students as a professor at Dakota Wesleyan University.

I wish they had watched his old sedan crisscross our state, rebuilding its Democratic Party from the ground up, making grassroots democracy a reality.

I wish they had witnessed the gleam in his eye whenever he talked about his beloved wife, Eleanor.

I wish they knew about the $20 tips he left on $7 lunches for my best friend Melissa who, like so many young people, was struggling to save money to pursue higher education.

And I wish they had experienced his uncanny ability to make every person before him — rich or poor, president or picketer — feel like they mattered.

Unlike our current presidential candidates (and many before them) who pander their stump speeches to the elusive “middle class,” McGovern dared to fight for those who needed it most: the sick, the hungry, the poor. He spearheaded anti-hunger initiatives domestically and abroad, using American food surpluses to feed starving children around the world. He tirelessly campaigned to bring American troops home from Vietnam, understanding first-hand the human toll of war. He asked America to “come home.” (“Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.”) And he did it all with integrity, humility, and compassion unparalleled in a political arena dominated by privileged elites.

George McGovern, more than any other public figure, made me proud to be me: a prairie liberal, a life-long student, an unrelenting activist, an aspiring public servant.

As an undergraduate intern for Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Johnson and, later, as a field organizer for the South Dakota Democratic Party, I considered George McGovern the gold standard for grassroots activists. Now, as I embark on a career in education, I find myself looking back to the same man who originally inspired my commitment to community organizing. 

A teacher by trade, McGovern seemed to treat his campaign speeches like lectures, designed to educate and inspire rather than to self-promote. A product of modest means and of rural public schools, McGovern firmly championed the notion that all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, had a right to a free quality education, one that would challenge them to think critically and thoughtfully about their country’s future. A teacher’s patience, a historian’s perspective – this was the George McGovern I was raised to love.

In his 90 years of putting others first, I hope Senator McGovern paused to appreciate the millions of lives he touched. 

I hope he felt valued by a public that was 40 years late in validating the humanitarian policies he so tirelessly championed.

And I hope he knew, though I never had the chance to tell him, that in the eyes of this unremitting idealist and South Dakota liberal, he has always been a winner … by a landslide.

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Allison LaFave

A veritable tumbleweed, Allison grew up in South Dakota and graduated from Harvard College in 2010 with a B.A. in Comparative Religion. Her postgrad employment has run the gamut of super-liberal jobs, including legal assistant to a police misconduct lawyer; third grade teacher in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn; and jack-of-all-trades at an education nonprofit. Allison's first big concert was Willie Nelson (take that for what it's worth), and she prides herself on her ability to make wicked mix CDs à la 1993. When she's not aggressively Googling panda videos, Allison is asserting the superiority of South Dakota over North Dakota. (Naturally.)

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