Any mention of George McGovern in recent years has evoked for me vivid memories of the pathetic spectacle that was the Democratic National Convention of 1972 in Miami Beach, which I covered as a 29-year-old reporter.
It’s a wonder that I can remember anything of that strange week. It was all so contentious and exhausting. Every session lasted through the night, ending only when the sun came up over the Atlantic Ocean. The assembled Democrats fought among themselves over everything, and the discord was such that McGovern’s speech accepting his party’s presidential nomination didn’t begin until 2:48 a.m., long after most of the TV audience across the country had gone to bed. That factor, among others, convinced me even then that this man’s quest for the Oval Office was doomed.
But for me and no doubt lots of other people, the futility of McGovern’s presidential candidacy has never diminished his stature as a thoroughly decent and highly principled man.
Born the son of a Methodist minister in a small town in South Dakota, George McGovern would go on to become a star student in college, a genuine hero as a bomber pilot in World War II, a professor of history and political science, and a builder of the Democratic Party in his home state, which elected him to the U.S. House and then the U.S. Senate.
McGovern was perhaps the first member of the Senate to speak out against America’s increasing military involvement in Vietnam, and he persisted in that dissent through the duration of the conflict.
After his presidential candidacy failed in 1972, McGovern served another eight years in the Senate, but lost a re-election bid in 1980. Thereafter, he spent much of his time writing and lecturing and serving worthy causes, including a stint as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for George McGovern was something he wrote himself not so long ago:
During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I’ve been labeled a “bleeding-heart liberal.” It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society’s ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction “Love the neighbor as thyself.”