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Steve Speak: A tribute to George McGovern

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That thing Douglas MacArthur said about old soldiers can be just as true when it comes to old politicians:  “They don’t die– they just fade away.”

One day they’re in the thick of the action, then they exit the stage, years pass, and we forget they’re still around… until one day while thumbing through the newspaper we happen upon a brief obituary and we say: “Oh yeah, him.” Or oh “Yeah, her.” Maybe it was one of the good ones, so we’ll shake our heads. “That’s too bad.” Or maybe it was one of the not-so good ones and we’ll shrug our shoulders. Either way, we turn the page in a minute or two, and that’s that.

But the script doesn’t always go that way and sometimes it shouldn’t.

George McGovern is 90 years old and he doesn’t have much time left. He’s gone home to South Dakota and entered hospice care, and his daughter said Monday that her father is  “nearing the end of his life.”

Nearing the end, yes– but not there yet. For the moment, he’s still alive. And thank God for that, because it gives all of us a chance to remind ourselves who exactly this man is and to let him know how much his life has mattered to this nation.

Bobby Kennedy once called him the most decent man in the Senate, but I’d go farther than that. I doubt there’s ever been a more decent human being in politics than George Stanley McGovern. He was– he is– a liberal Democrat, but you needn’t be a fellow traveler to tip your cap. What he really is is an unusually honest man from unusually humble roots whose heart is always with the underdog.

He grew up in the worst of Dust Bowl poverty, the son of a Methodist minister, even became a clergyman himself for a few years. He’s a patriot. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he quit school, enlisted, and flew bombing missions over Germany in a plane called The Dakota Queen.

The experiences shaped him and he entered politics with a mission– fighting poverty, to end hunger, stop war, and always, always look out for the little guy– even, or especially, when no one else is.

History says McGovern lost one of the worst landslides ever in the 1972 presidential race. He only carried one state, Massachusetts, and didn’t even crack 40 percent of the vote. But history forgets the promise his campaign began with:  a coalition of young voters who didn’t want anymore of their brothers, or cousins or friends or classmates dying in Vietnam, and of blue collar voters who didn’t wanted a fair chance to get ahead. Together, they would have been an unstoppable force, but Richard Nixon saw to it that they were divided. McGovern, the preacher’s son, was the candidate of amnesty, acid and abortion, he told his “silent majority,” and they believed him.

It was a horribly unfair caricature, but McGovern was philosophical. “There are worse things than losing,” he said years later. “That landslide, victorious team of ‘72 spent a total of 180 years in prison, and the president resigned in disgrace.”

This country’s politics were better with George McGovern a part of them, and this country is a better place because of his life. I’m glad I can look into this camera today and tell him that. And if he means anything at all to you, I hope you’ll find a way to let him know too.

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Steve Speak: A tribute to George McGovern

Updated