10/23/2012 06:52 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

In Memory: George McGovern

One of the highpoints in my career was the opportunity to work with George McGovern. I first met the former U.S. senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee 12 years ago at one of the "McGovern Days" programs he offered for the people of his home state of South Dakota. As an admirer of the Senator's early and strong opposition to the Vietnam War and his tireless advocacy for human rights, I finagled my way into joining him on stage for a panel discussion on ending world hunger.

We hit it off well and, over dinner that evening, I offered my services to help the Senator with his dream of building a library and center dedicated to educating students, promoting social justice, and ending world hunger. After the George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Public Leadership opened on the campus of his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, the Senator invited me to serve on his center's board.

Like many politicians, the Senator was a people person. But, unlike many politicians, he continued to be one even when not running for office. McGovern, for instance, loved baseball and he invited me to go to games with him. Even though team owners offered him seats in the VIP box, he would decline and sit with everyone else. However, this meant that while we munched peanuts and drank beer he was constantly interrupted by a steady stream of well-wishers. The Senator didn't mind. In fact, he greeted everyone with warmth and sincerity. Once, after a number of people shook his hand claiming they supported him, he leaned over and joked that if even half the people who told him they had voted for him in 1972 had actually done so, he would have beaten Nixon!

Two of the Senator's main priorities were promoting peace and trying to end world hunger. He was, famously, one of the first political leaders to oppose the war in Vietnam and, later, became a vocal critic of George W. Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, his firm opposition to war hurt him during the 1972 presidential campaign when Richard Nixon portrayed McGovern as weak on defense and unpatriotic. Indeed, for years afterward, Republicans ridiculed the Senator by dismissing people they claimed to be "un-American" as "McGovernites" or "McGovernicks."

Yet, it was Nixon who drove a desk during WWII, but McGovern who was the bona fide hero. The senator piloted bombers in Europe, distinguishing himself on many dangerous missions. He even volunteered to continue to serve after his enlistment ended. But, unlike politicians today who claim credit for everything, McGovern was from that generation that did not discuss such matters in public. Of course, it was McGovern and not Nixon who ended up on the right side of history when it came to Vietnam and other American military misadventures.

Although McGovern lost in a landslide in 1972, not long after Nixon's reelection a story broke about a burglary in the Watergate building and the rest, as they say, is history. Once again, McGovern had been right.

Indeed, despite the rhetoric coming out of the political parties, it was McGovern who was actually the moralist, maintaining that it was our duty as Americans to care for our fellow citizens in need, just as it was patriotic to oppose unjust wars. In fact, the Senator was the son of a preacher and even contemplated a career in the cloth before transferring to Northwestern University to complete a Ph.D. in history.

McGovern became a history professor and was always inspired by the great moral lessons from history. I once asked him why he did not complete his divinity training. He treated me to stories of his Old Testament heroes and the beauty of the psalms, but then the Senator stopped abruptly. He admitted that, while preaching at a small church, he encountered a group of parishioners who were laughing loudly at a joke. When McGovern asked them what was so funny, they refused to tell him because he was preaching that day. He asked me, "Who would want to go through life without being privy to a good joke?"

But, McGovern devoted his entire life to the leading moral challenges of the day. It is telling that, while discussing his memories of children starving in post-war Europe or American soldiers dying in Vietnam, I observed him begin to tear up. He was a true believer.

The fact that conservative South Dakota farmers elected him and then re-elected him... and that he remained a beloved and iconic figure on the prairie, speaks volumes to his record. While few Dakotans shared his liberal views, they all knew him to be a true friend of the farmer and the common man. And he never forgot them while serving.

In this day and age of poll-driven politicians, nasty political attacks, and corporate lobbyists, George McGovern was a real-life Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The world lost a prolific author, a crusader for peace, a friend to the common man, a man whose actions fed millions, and a true American patriot.

Robert Watson, Ph.D. has published 34 books on American politics and history and serves as Professor and Coordinator of American Studies at Lynn University.