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Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern, an exceptional American

The last sentence of George McGovern's last book, What It Means To Be A Democrat published late in 2011, reads:

"It is not for nothing that I will go to my grave believing that ours is the greatest country on earth."
Early Sunday morning, he departed and is on his way to his grave.  What is significant is that a man who unashamedly called himself a liberal and was vilified by many as not representative of American values would insist upon the greatness of America to his death. He did not, however, define that greatness in terms of power and influence, but by its force in confronting poverty and hunger, and in actualizing equality and justice for all people.

News that McGovern was in hospice care stunned people who kept track of him, because a few weeks ago he was attending social and cultural functions, granting interviews to high school journalists, and maintaining the active and thoughtfully engaged life that he led throughout his 90 years.

George McGovern expressed a love and devotion for his home state of  South Dakota.  He emphasized the decency he found in it.  A common attack by Republicans against Democratic politicians in the state (and sometimes against their own) is to construe their achievements and successes in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere as betrayals of  South Dakota and its people.  George McGovern and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin are unique among those incumbents who have lost elections in the state in that they have returned to the state and made it their home.  Most have not.  A campaign manager for one of the Democratic losers explained that his candidate would not return to South Dakota, not because he lost the election, but because the voters expressed in the casting of their ballots that they regarded his out-of-state political alliances as philandering, he was not one of them, and they did not want him around.  The continuing negative and hostile comments about the deposed politicians express and affirm that attitude.  It has been on display against George McGovern, but he has never accepted it as a defining characteristic of South Dakota.  Even on the day of his death, one newspaper columnist chose to remember McGovern from that peevish cast of mind.  A colleague commented on the column, "Well, this is South Dakota."  George McGovern would not have agreed.  

 Criticism of South Dakota is generally met with the advice that if  one doesn't like it here, they should leave.  Among conservative Americans, that sentiment is often expressed on the national level.  In his 1972 acceptance speech for the Democratic candidacy for president, McGovern stated his response to that invitation to leave:
“We reject the view of those who say, ‘America, love it or leave it.’ We reply, ‘Let us change it so we can love it more.’ ”
George McGovern was a stalwart and effective opponent of ignorant slanders against those in the lower economic ranks, characterizations intended to discredit and inspire hatred of those who  experience need.  He strenuously refuted the notion that there are hordes of people who don't want to work.  McGovern covers this in his last book.  His comments anticipated Mitt Romney's contention that 47 percent of the people feel they are victims and sit around waiting for handouts and Paul Ryans assertion that 30 percent of Americans are takers and not makers.

A job puts food on a family's table and puts shoes on their feet, pays mortgages and medical bills, and engages the mind and/or body.  It builds  a sense of self-worth that is essential to  one's well-being.

...No good Democrat wants our neighbors sitting at home, unable to earn an income by their own sweat or ingenuity.  This is such a basic tenet that I would challenge anyone to disagree.  The opportunity to make a living is the very foundation of America no matter what political party one affiliates with.
But I worry about my grandchildren's and greatgrandchildrens's generations.  They have every reason to question the old adages.  Pop culture delivers the message that getting ahead and  work are unrelated.  It is possible to be famous for being famous.  Corporations let them know the big guys always win. Parents can work hard for decades and be dropped with no severance, while the CEO takes home multi-million-dollar bonuses.  It is hard to climb the ladder when the rungs are missing.  It is easy to believe that the key to success is ruthless selfishness.

When people believe that the deck is irredeemably stacked, they lose hope.  When you decide that the rule is every man for himself,   you stop caring.  You lose community,  You undermine your family.  And you are angry. 
I was not a close friend of George McGovern's, but over a period of 50 years I encountered him frequently in the course of my work.  After serving two terms in the U.S. House, he ran for the Senate and lost.  President Kennedy appointed him to run the Food for Peace program.  Then he ran for Senate again and won, earning a seat on the agriculture committee because of his experience in the House and as Food for Peace director.  This is when I first met him.  I was the farm and business editor for a newspaper, and belonged to an organization of farm editors that arranged for a press pool reporter to be in Washington when important legislation on agriculture was being  forged. I was on pool duty.   A pool reporter sends reports back to member newspapers, but also chases down information and answers requested by member editors for their particular newspapers.

I was trying to get some information on a proposed farm bill that some editors had asked for and was being given the run-around by staff members in the Dept. of Agriculture.  I was in the lobby of the Senate  chambers participating in a bitch session with some other reporters about the matter when I spotted Sen. McGovern walking through.  I approached him, told him who I was, and asked if he knew how we might get the information.  He gave me the name of a staff member in his office and told me to check with that person a bit later after the Senator had a chance to alert him to what we wanted.

The background of the situation was that Orville Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture, and George McGovern, who was in strong favor with farmers,  were in disagreement about matters of farm subsidies.  If I recall correctly, the disagreement was over Freeman proposing policies that would reduce the surpluses in farm production, and McGovern thought the first priority in handling the surpluses should be to get them to the hungry throughout the world who needed them. When we went to McGovern's office, his staff member said he had called the Dept. of Agriculture and there was a person there who would supply us the information.  We reporters went over there and were given information and answers for anything we asked for by an assistant secretary of agriculture.

That night we reporters conjectured that Sen. McGovern's help might have been a political move, as well as him being approachable, nice, and helpful. Sending some reporters representing the national press to the department may have put some pressure on it to accept a version of the farm bill favored by McGovern.

When I moved to South Dakota, George McGovern was still in the Senate and although I was now a professor, not a journalist, I still did some reporting and analysis of farm issues for some publications.   Throughout his life George McGovern was involved with issues of agriculture, nutrition, and hunger.  He served as ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Committee, and with Sen. Bob Dole, started and  ran a program for getting nutritious meals to school children throughout the world.  I encountered him frequently when he served those capacities and, of course, in political work after I retired.

The obituaries cite George McGovern's candidacy for president and the trouncing he took from Richard Nixon.  Throughout his life, he was on friendly, amiable terms with his political opponents.  But while he lost his presidential bid, his influence in dealing with the Viet Nam Ward was inestimable.  His influence is cited when the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan are cited.  Until his last hours, he spoke out for food and peace in the world and for those things which would produce them.

His character has lifted the way people throughout the nation regard the home state that he returned to.  He raised the way people throughout the world perceive America. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States