Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Opinion

McGovern's decency and reticence

In the end, accumulating wealth and fame and power probably doesn't mean much. You're just as dead as the next guy.

What matters is reputation. And on that score, George McGovern can rest a little easier that he died a decent man. And that is not as easy as it seems when one makes a living in politics.

Scholars will note McGovern holds the dubious distinction of suffering the worst defeat in American presidential history, losing to Richard Nixon in 1972 and carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

This wasn't a just landslide for Nixon. It was an Electoral College Armageddon. Sometimes good guys finish light years beyond last.

It was small comfort to McGovern that despite the defeat he was right in his signature opposition to the Vietnam War, a conflict born out of a political deceit and ended with the nation's image in tatters.

As we would come to experience all over again decades later, some presidents never learn. Some commanders in chief would have been well served to pick up a phone and call Mitchell, S.D., before sending thousands of American troops to die in a faraway land for the sake of presidential testosterone.

McGovern was not an electrifying speaker nor a charismatic presence. All he had going for him was honesty. And it wasn't enough.

It is one of the great ironies of our politics that McGovern was portrayed by his hawkish critics as a liberal, cowardly, antiwar, almost unpatriotic figure because of his strident opposition to Vietnam.

He had a ready defense against those arrows. And he never used it. His generation rarely did.

Chances are, in 1972 and in the years that followed, few people knew McGovern's stance against the Vietnam War was grounded in all too personal terms.

In World War II, B-24 pilot Lt. George McGovern flew 35 missions over Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. He watched crew members and colleagues die in combat. All too often he had to struggle to return his damaged and difficult-to-fly aircraft safely back to base. He knew war.

And yet in the face of withering assaults on his character, questioning his love of country, McGovern never pulled the combat card.

He could have easily confronted his detractors with war stories. But he didn't.

Such things simply weren't done by the Greatest Generation, which could also rightly be called the Self-Deprecating Generation.

My father flew 50 missions in his B-24. And yet, repeated entreaties by his son to talk about "What did you do in the war, Dad?" produced very little detail. It was a closed issue until the day he died.

So it was with McGovern, who endured aspersions on his reputation by lesser poltroons who didn't know, or didn't care, they were belittling an American hero who was, by the way, right.

In 1980, I was president of the Hillsborough County Suicide and Crisis Center, at the time a small agency struggling to make ends meet. We decided to hold a fundraiser, which would be a roast of former state Rep. George Sheldon, who had been a key Florida operative for McGovern in 1972.

As dinner was getting under way, I stepped into the corridor of the airport Marriott only to run into McGovern, who was on his way to speak at another event.

I sheepishly introduced myself and explained we were feting Sheldon. Would it be possible for the senator to duck into our gala and say a few words?

McGovern readily agreed, and I quickly ran back inside the banquet room to introduce an unscheduled special guest. Much to the crowd's pleasure and Sheldon's shock, McGovern strode into the room and over the next 10 minutes or so, delivered a funny and gracious off-the-cuff speech singing his former aide's virtues and the work of the crisis center.

He didn't have to do this. He could have begged off, claiming he was pressed for time, which he was. But he didn't. Because speaking about a loyal former staffer was more important. It was the decent thing to do.

Who knows if McGovern would have been a successful president. But we do know he was an intellectually honest candidate who spoke his mind about one of the most divisive issues of his time regardless of the consequences and paid the price for his candor. How unique.

He lost an election. But he remains an American hero.

And oh yes, he was right, too.

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