12/28/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

In Praise of McGovern, Prairie Sage

In his famous essay entitled "On Old Age," the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero wrote profoundly about our final years: "When the end comes what has passed has flowed away, and all that is left is what you have achieved by virtue and good deeds." Although these words seem a fitting eulogy for a lost sage, I take them more as tribute to the living, to the active elder who is still blooming even as most of life's attributes and accolades have been pared away. So imagine a man who once sat in one of the highest seats of influence, listened to and lauded by millions, and only a step away from the most powerful position on the planet. During the 1972 presidential election this man was South Dakota Senator George S. McGovern -- the Democratic nominee and for a few months just an election away from the mountaintop. And now imagine this same man over 40 years later, with senatorial power and influence having flowed away. The strident voice of this statesman who once galvanized nearly half the American electorate was now only a memory to most and a mystery to those too young to have experienced the tumultuous 1972 election.

By 2008, most of McGovern's political involvements had ceased, aside from a few endorsements. He had faced the traumatic losses of his daughter Teresa to alcoholism in 1994 and his beloved wife Eleanor to illness in 2007. For many an aging statesman, it might have been time to bow out from public life and heed another one of Cicero's maxims that "Old age is the final act of life, as of a drama, and we ought to leave when the play grows wearisome, especially if we have had our fill." And yet McGovern did not bow out. Neither did he try to recapture some of the political glory that defined him for most Americans. Instead, he returned in part to his earlier roots as a preacher, historian and itinerant political organizer by reshaping the ambitious but inchoate impulses of the young McGovern into the measured and wise encore of an older man. When not with close family and friends, he spent time writing a history of Abraham Lincoln, and traveling around the country giving speeches and interviews.

This is how I came to meet and interview McGovern in 2008 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. I encountered firsthand his Midwest warmth and charm, his intellectual acumen, and the inspiring manner in which he spoke to individuals and audiences alike. Here is a prime example of his humanity and humility. During our interview I gave him a copy of a published essay I had written about old age, not expecting him to give it so much as a glance. But several hours later he greeted me with a warm compliment on the piece and even quoted from it, adding his own thoughts. He was sincerely interested in both the piece and the person behind it. My own brief time with McGovern echoed what many others who knew him have subsequently told me -- that he was a man without pretense who was content in his old age to travel around the country sans entourage, carrying his own suit bag and making many of his own arrangements. There was in McGovern, it seemed, simply the joy of intellectual and political dialogue, and the camaraderie of friends, admirers and newfound acquaintances with whom he could share his passion for America.

For many commentators and candidates alike over the years, McGovern was a political straw man frequently bashed as the exemplar of liberal failures. But for anyone who truly knew him, such criticism widely missed both the man and the message, regardless of one's political stances. McGovern truly represented the American spirit not only as a young and middle-aged man, but as an older man as well; a war hero turned politician, a politician turned presidential nominee, and a presidential nominee turned prairie sage. He infused each role with a radiant honesty and humanity. He was a living example of the great potential we face not in spite of old age, but because of it, and his influence was, in the words of Cicero, "the crowning glory of old age."

When I asked him what wisdom he held for the current generation, he offered words quite appropriate to current debates on a wide variety of challenges we face: "You've got to always have some degree of openness and tolerance for opposing points of view," he told me, adding that "it doesn't mean you become flabby about where you stand on public issues, but it does mean a capacity to see that problems are really complicated, that there are other angles that have to be considered." Above all, he emphasized the importance of personal integrity: "You know it's so trite, but be intellectually honest. Don't shade the truth. Say what you honestly think. It's the best point of view you can bring to bear on an issue. . . When I ran in '72 I announced saying that I make one pledge above all others: to seek and speak the truth. And I really tried to do that."

This was the spirit of George McGovern. When he passed away at the age of 90 on October 21st of this year, McGovern was eloquently praised by individuals from across the political spectrum. Like so many others, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to encounter and learn from such a man. He represented the best of what aging can bring.