10/25/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Think Again: George McGovern -- A Lifetime of Conscience and Courage

George McGovern's passing on Sunday at the age of 90 provides further evidence, as if any were needed, that if you live long enough, even your adversaries will end up singing your praises. Consider first these attacks on the late senator and presidential candidate in the 1972 election.

Writing a few years ago in the journal Democracy, American historian and journalist Rick Perlstein quoted the following attacks on Democratic candidates by various Democrats and liberals:

In 2003, Al From and Bruce Reed with the Democratic Leadership Council wrote, "What activists like [Howard] Dean call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is an aberration: the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home."

The very next year, a Democrat worrying that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was veering left on Iraq during his run for the presidency was quoted in The New York Times saying the 2004 presidential nominee was "[c]oming off like George McGovern."

When Ned Lamont won the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate but lost in the general election to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who ran as an independent, political journalist Jacob Weisberg recalled in the Financial Times how McGovern lost 49 states in his presidential run because of "his tendency toward isolationism and ambivalence about the use of American power in general."

Then there's Martin Peretz, the former owner and publisher of The New Republic, America's alleged flagship liberal publication for 37 years, who explained, "I bought The New Republic to take back the Democratic Party from the McGovernites."

This clichéd version of McGovern's politics was never accurate, but it became a stick with which hawkish journalists and politicians tried to beat back dovish ones. In fact, no Democrat, and perhaps no modern politician at all, can be said to have shown more courage, more grit, and more determination than George Stanley McGovern.

Yes, folks, the "elitist" liberal was born in the 600-person farming community of Avon, South Dakota, and grew up nearby in the equally small town of Mitchell. A bashful son of a Methodist minister, McGovern grew wary of "the excessive emotionalism of some evangelists" as he came of age in an America where his father was occasionally compensated not in cash but in cabbage.[1]

As his Wikipedia entry explains:

[McGovern] volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Forces upon the country's entry into World War II and as a B-24 Liberator pilot flew 35 missions over German-occupied Europe. Among the medals bestowed upon him was a Distinguished Flying Cross for making a hazardous emergency landing of his damaged plane and saving his crew.

Upon returning and earning a bachelor's degree from tiny Dakota Wesleyan University, the young veteran did a brief stint at Garrett Seminary in Chicago before enrolling in the graduate history program at Northwestern University, eventually earning his doctorate. There, McGovern would both anticipate and then echo revisionist Cold War historians, among them William Appleman Williams and Fred Harvey Harrington, who held that Harry Truman and company, rather than Stalin's Soviet Union, were largely responsible for causing the Cold War. McGovern explained that "we not only overreacted" to the Soviet Union but "indeed helped trigger" the Cold War "by our own post-World War II fears."[2] He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the 1913 Colorado coal strike, and his research would later lead him to demonstrate much greater sympathy for unionized workers than pretty much any other Farm Belt politician.

McGovern taught briefly at Dakota Wesleyan College before returning home to South Dakota to undertake yet another unlikely and quite daring adventure -- to almost single-handedly build the state Democratic Party organization. He had to scrounge to stay afloat, sleeping on friendly couches or in his car as he crisscrossed the state, personally recruiting 35,000 new Democrats.[3]

He then deployed the organization to run for Congress in 1956 and later for the U.S. Senate. He lost his 1960 Senate bid (and lost his House seat in the process) but succeeded two years later -- serving as the head of the Kennedy administration's Food for Peace program in-between, marking a lifelong commitment to feeding the hungry worldwide, and making valuable friends inside the administration.

McGovern first came to national prominence toward the end of the 1968 campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Following the June 6 assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, his devastated supporters first tried to convince his younger brother Ted Kennedy to assume the mantle of RFK's peace-and-civil-rights-themed campaign. But Ted was in no shape, physically or emotionally, to do so. In one of history's forgotten footnotes, McGovern took up the cause.

Announcing his candidacy in the Senate caucus room in August 1968, McGovern explained what prompted his decision:

Vietnam -- the most disastrous political and military blunder in our national experience. That war must be ended now -- not next year or the year following, but right now. Beyond this, we need to harness the full spiritual and political resources of this nation to put an end to the shameful remnants of racism and poverty that still afflict our land.[4]

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  • [1] George McGovern, Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern (New York: Random House, 1977), 5.
  • [2] Ibid., 41.
  • [3] Bruce Miroff, The Liberals' Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 33.
  • [4] Quoted in: Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983), 87-88.