Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern – A Recollection

(Thousands of South Dakotans had interaction with George McGovern in the political realm. These are my encounters with him, nothing too different than from many others – just mine.)

South Dakota has lost three of its political Titans in 2012, Bill Janklow, Jim Abdnor and now George McGovern.

Having come of age as they say in the 60s, I certainly heard of George McGovern way before I ever dreamed that I might live in South Dakota and had any clue of the correct pronunciation of our State Capitol.

Hubert Humphrey was my choice in '68. 1968 was a tumultuous year and when I voted for the first time in a Presidential election. In those days you had to be 21 years old to vote. In '72 my pick was Nixon. Since then I have supported the Republican nominee every time. In the intervening four years I married and had a young daughter. Having a family and adult responsibilities had that effect on me. I also was in transition from thinking with my head instead of my heart.

George McGovern was as noted in the many obituaries that are appearing was an unapologetic liberal. He always thought with his heart. Clearly it was the influence of his upbringing as the son of a Methodist Minister. He was a graduate of Dakota Wesleyan and well as Northwestern University whose roots are well established. Northwestern while being non sectarian was founded by Methodists with strong ties to the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Besides being out spoken in his opposition to the Viet Nam War (excuse me officially Conflict), the Eagleton debacle, and his proposal to give every American a check for $1000,neither his positions nor his competence made sense to me. You don't read about his $1000 welfare proposal in today's obits nor very little about his comments on the over regulation of business when the Inn he was proprietor of took bankruptcy. (I think in the early '90s.).

Nixon seemed like the logical choice. Over time it is often forgotten the war was a Democrat one. In '68 the incumbent President even chose not to seek re election because of it.

In 1973 I moved to South Dakota.

On Labor Day in 1972 George McGovern was kicking off his campaign with the traditional Democrat appearance in Detroit. (Forty years ago there were not two year campaigns like we “enjoy” now.) Only a year later on Labor Day as a newly minted South Dakotan I met George McGovern. Prior to the Wagner Labor Day Celebration parade he toured the new business my Dad and the Yankton Sioux Tribe began. To me (I was not involved in politics at the time) he was a celebrity. In Texas you might never see the Governor or a U S Senator, much less meet them; Additionally Senator McGovern had Celebrity Status with worldwide recognition.

At the plant on that Labor Day, the Senator was interested and very well met.

What I particularly remember was his politician's vanity. More than once he combed his hair and seemed ever observant, looking out for anyone who might have a camera. Thirty five years later when I interviewed him (he met me at the KELO television station) he was still ready with his comb and looking out for the camera.

My next major encounter with the Senator came several years later, probably in 1977 or 1978 when the Burlington Northern Railroad proposed abandoning railways in South Dakota. Of particular interest to me and the citizens of South Central South Dakota was the Nappa Junction to Platte line. While the plant that I helped manage used rail very little, (of course that was a great part of the problem) given the transportation marketplace, without rail as a competitor, trucking rates were sure to go up. This was before transportation services were deregulated and the Interstate Commerce Commission was abolished. Our Elevator companies were clearly worried as were their customers; Farmers. In South Dakota when farmers are worried so are their Congressmen.

We had a community meeting in Wagner with the rail users, many farmers, bankers, local business people, the newspaper, state legislators, county commissioners, the mayor, and city alderman with Senator McGovern.

Senator McGovern did what most elected officials do at this kind of meeting. He listened, was sympathetic, and assured us he would use his office to help try and find a solution.

Then he told a great story I will never forget. He said that the Air Force should take our missiles out of their silos and put them on train cars and launch them from trains. We should keep the trains moving all around the Country in a random manner so that our enemies would not know where to strike them at any given time. The advantage to this would be that the Government could either manage the rail system or at least provide the funding for a rail infrastructure in the United States and thus save our rail line.

In an effort to demonstrate that he just had not gone looney tunes, he further explained. (As the ever unapologetic liberal) In the early 1950s Democrats pushed for greatly increased national funding of education, without much success.

In 1957, the same year McGovern was elected to the House of Representatives, the Russians put in orbit the Sputnik 1, the first Earth Satellite. Thus the space race started. During these Cold War years Sputnik was seen as a military threat to the United States. As a consequence the Democrat Education bill with a few new bells and whistles for Space Research was re dressed up as a National Defense Education Act and was easily passed into law. The Senator’s story was truly instructive, a great story, and a political anecdote.

I cut my political teeth campaigning against George McGovern. In 1980, as an absolute novice, I knocked on every door of every home and every apartment in Wagner with tabloid in hand telling my neighbors why they should vote for Jim Abdnor. While it is easy to attribute McGovern's defeat to James Earl Cater, I really don't believe McGovern was ever competitive. That is a story for another time.

About two years ago I attended a McGovern lecture at Zandbros Variety about his book on President Lincoln. After the lecture, we talked about his replacing Eagleton on the ticket in '72. An interesting history itself, as the Nominee he asked five or six others and was turned down before he settled on Sergeant Shirver. Finally I last exchanged pleasantries with him last winter at my perch at the counter at Queen City Bakery. Vain and feisty as ever, we discussed current events and he never had a harsh sentiment despite our very differing views.

George McGovern was a kind and decent man though always a battler. He fought for what he believed in. Many will say his legacy will be his opposition to Viet Nam, his fight against World Hunger, or even Watergate and campaign finance reform. All true, but I more hope his passing might reignite a time in politics reminding us all that those of differing views can work together to find solutions rather than fight and vilify our opponent.