It is with great sadness that I write of the death of Senator George McGovern. He was 90 years old and his advanced age simply caught up with him. But George McGovern, as the movie line went, was some kind of man.
He was the first and only candidate I ever truly supported for president. He would have been a great one, but—up against the likes of Richard M. Nixon—he wasn’t vicious enough to get to the White House. Since he ran in 1968, we’ve had no one—and I mean no one—of his character and caliber.
It is hard not to be wistful about how far our national politics has fallen since 1968. I knew McGovern, followed his work and reported on it, listened to his speeches, had a few drinks with him and always admired him.
When in college—being from the still impoverished state of South Carolina—I came to Washington to report on McGovern’s hearings on hunger. In 1968, I was a very green 20-year-old reporter, but I could not help being impressed. Yes, McGovern was a liberal of the highest order—one who wanted to help poor people live a better life.
And, yes, even then he was attacked for that. Little has changed since that day, including the lack of popularity of helping the poor. But I was completely on board with McGovern and his policies.
As one facing the draft and the war in Vietnam, I also appreciated McGovern’s opposition to the war. He was unlike the racist hypocrites who served and still serve in Congress from South Carolina.
Later, when I worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. Robert Byrd, I got to know McGovern and his top aide, Gary Hart (later to become a senator himself). We all became friendly. Hart offered me a job on McGovern’s presidential campaign, which I refused, deciding to leave Washington to become a reporter and writer instead.
In the era of Richard Nixon, whose reign of power turned out to be far more toxic than anyone could even imagine back in the 60s, McGovern offered an antidote of incredible decency and solid thinking.
America’s rejection of him was tough for me to swallow. But one thing is clear—the quality of our presidential candidates has gone down ever since.
I heard McGovern speak again in 2008 in New York City. Even then at his advanced age, he was dead on right with everything he said. I still wanted him to be president more than ever, but it was not to be.
McGovern remains a shining symbol of the best of this country’s political left—particularly in relation to the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s when the country was torn by U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the corruption and abuse of power of the Nixon administration.
Even he recognized the mixed results of his 1972 candidacy, saying, "I opened the doors of the Democratic Party and 20 million people walked out." McGovern had also become more forceful in recent years in drawing historical parallels between the Nixon and Bush administrations and the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
McGovern's post-political career generally enhanced his reputation. Tom Brokaw wrote in 1998 that “he remains one of the country's most decent and thoughtful public servants.”
Sadly, the nation has run out of this breed of politician. Now, in this election, we’ve hit bottom on all sides. But, for those who remember, it wasn’t always that way.
George McGovern was definitely some kind of man. I’m proud to have known him and thankful I lived in his time. May he finally rest in peace.