Since I covered Sen. George McGovern for more than a decade as a Washington correspondent for the Aberdeen (S.D.) American News (and other Knight-Ridder newspapers), including his ill-fated 1972 presidential campaign, I feel justified in resurrecting something I wrote in this space on the occasion of his 85th birthday in July 2007. I hope it conveys my respect and admiration for one of the unique figures in American politics now that he's no longer with us. The title of my post was "George McGovern's Last Hurrah."
Thirty-five years after losing a landslide election to Richard Nixon and winning only one state -- Massachusetts -- that branded him as one of the biggest losers in American politics, George McGovern has claimed his place in history as one of its biggest winners.
It was only appropriate and fitting that he did so with the help of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the famed duo of reporters who disproved Nixon's claim that "I'm not a crook."
Woodward, speaking at a luncheon honoring McGovern on his 85th birthday on Saturday, said that after listening to hundreds of hours of secret Nixon White House tapes, "You realise that the character of Nixon becomes clearer. You see not only the criminality of his abuse of power but you see the dog that never barks, which is that he never says what would be the right thing to do, what would be good for the country?'"
McGovern, by contrast, Woodward said, illustrates "the irony of American politics," that he "asked exactly that question, 'What do the people want, what do they need, what would be good for the country?'"
Bernstein, Woodward's raffish former partner who is fresh off a revealing biography of Hillary Clinton, said, "There is so much in our political system and in our journalism that is about George McGovern, his legacy of decency, his absence of cynicism, his civility. ... We see where there's still hope and that's the life of Geoge McGovern. Obviously, we need those McGovern rules more than ever today. ... I'm grateful for that lesson, and I think we all are."
McGovern, basking in the adulation of former aides and campaign workers, called this "the best day of my life, except maybe for the day I was nominated." Still recovering emotionally from the recent death of his wife Eleanor, the former South Dakota senator said, "I feel love in this room and it means more to me than anything."
He credited his staff and suporters for helping him win the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, but lamented, with tongue in cheek, that despite the "army of volunteers" that made that possible, he had to "hail a cab to get over here."
McGovern, who now heads an International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program named for him and his longtime political adversary, former Kansas Senator and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, made clear that his experience as a combat veteran of World War II -- he flew numerous dangerous missions as a B-24 bomber pilot over Nazi-occupied Europe -- would have given President Bush pause before invading Iraq.
He also promised that he will work, for the rest of his life, on meeting the challenge of world hunger.
That was, in fact, the title of the symposium held at George Washington University on Saturday before the luncheon. And McGovern, who was President Kennedy's ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization before being elected to the Senate, made it clear that he hopes to convince Congress to expand the McGovern-Dole program to provide school meals to children in the world's poorest countries.
"One of the great things about getting interested in hunger is that is is a solveable problem," he said. "We have the resources, we have the know-how, we have the distribution capability, we know about nutrition... If we would really get behind this, we could lick this problem."
He noted that he and Woodward and Bernstein, who were sitting next to him at lunch, had discussed the fact that the U.S. is spending $250 million each day in Iraq, or one billion dollars every four days. "If we just had that money for four days and could get the United Nations and other countries to help out, we could whip this problem," he said.
After the lunch, I talked to McGovern, and reminded him that I was the Washington correspondent for the Aberdeen American News who covered him when he was in the Senate and when he ran for president. He thanked me and readily signed a copy of the luncheon program, which I promptly got Woodward and Bernstein to sign as well.
I'm sure it's the only piece of paper bearing the autograph of McGovern, Woodward and Bernstein. Maybe I'll put it on eBay and see what I can get for it. Whatever it brings, I'll donate it to the George and Eleanor McGovern Legacy Fund, which supports his two favorite causes, preparing students at Dakota Wesleyan University for careers in public service, and the United Nations Food Program, which fights hunger among the world's poorest children.
As I said at the beginning, George McGovern is no longer one of the biggest losers in American politics, but one of its biggest winners.