I was lucky enough to meet George McGovern almost exactly twenty years ago, and spend about a half hour in conversation with him. That can happen to you when you’re trapped next to somebody in an airplane, but I would hope that if the tables were ever turned, I’d be as gracious as was the Senator.
It was just about now in the 1992 election cycle, as Bill Clinton was struggling to defeat a sitting President, George H. W. Bush. Senator McGovern had been in that same position twenty years earlier, in 1972, but his campaign to dethrone Richard Nixon came to an ignominious end. Simply by tapping the “Silent Majority” which had grown tired of hippies protesting in the streets, Nixon probably would have been re-elected anyway without his dirty tricks department, illegal wiretapping, enemies lists, hush money and assorted cheap thuggery. But his personal paranoia evidently knew no bounds, and he won in a landslide. For years afterward, as we slowly learned just how low Nixon and his henchmen sank to ensure victory, you could see bumper stickers in the only state Mr. McGovern carried: “Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts.”
As I told the Senator on that plane flight, his was the first vote for President I ever cast. The Constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 came too late for me, so I was 22 before I was granted that right, old enough that I could have served an entire hitch in Vietnam and returned home. (That injustice, that you could die for your country but not vote in its elections, was probably what tipped the issue for the nation at large — the very effective slogan was, “Old Enough To Fight, Old Enough To Vote” — as state after state ratified the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.) So I was on the losing end of that historic electoral torrent. But I’ve never regretted my vote. And George McGovern has remained a role model over the years: not just for the stand-up way he retained his dignity after that humiliating defeat, but also for his unwavering adherence to his core values. He never sold out his principles for a pocketful of votes. That this is at all remarkable says a lot about how American political life has devolved in less than half a century; it ought to describe most public servants.
During our conversation, you could tell that twenty years had passed since the Senator teed it up against Richard Nixon. The 70-year-old man wasn’t as spry as he was back in the days when the knot on your tie was as big as your fist. But he still had the same voice, that distinctive Midwestern twang, and by the time we landed everybody in the cabin knew who I was speaking with. In the last few years, his health deteriorated, but he kept working, giving speeches, striving to make real what he felt was right. Whether you agreed with him or not, he was a good man, an exemplary public servant, and we are fortunate indeed to have enjoyed the labors of this great American.