Popular image belied man of complex contrasts

The author interviews George McGovern in 2006 at McGovern’s Mitchell home. (Daily Republic file photo by Laura Wehde)

Published Oct. 22, 2012, in The Daily Republic

By SETH TUPPER
The Daily Republic

The popular image of George McGovern is that of a hopeless liberal, too radical to win even his home state in the 1972 presidential election.

That image, while lasting, is only a caricature. His was a life of puzzling contradictions that made him, like most legendary politicians, nearly impossible to define.

Criticized as a dove for his anti-Vietnam War crusade, he was a World War II hero who flew 35 bomber missions.

Labeled a loser because of his landslide loss in ’72, he won five of the eight times he appeared on a general election ballot.

Promoted as a “prairie populist,” he mingled with an ultra-liberal Hollywood crowd including Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine and Hunter S. Thompson.

Unabashedly Democratic, he spent 22 years in Congress by winning Republican votes in a state where Democrats were outnumbered.

Crushed by Nixon, he lived to see voters regret it.

It seemed that for every well-known side of McGovern, there was an opposing image. Theodore H. White captured McGovern’s complex personality perfectly in the book “The Making of the President 1972” when White, quoting an unidentified and “disillusioned” McGovern follower, called the then-senator a “humble, self-effacing egomaniac.”

Those contradictions within McGovern are why, when I think of him, I don’t think of the popular labels. Instead, I think of him primarily as an achiever and problem-solver. Those two descriptions, more than any others, were constantly true.

He was born and raised in what many Americans consider the middle of nowhere. Yet, in rapid succession, he rose to become a debate champion, pilot, war hero, college graduate, doctor of history, college professor, director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, congressman, director of Food for Peace, senator, Democratic presidential nominee, ambassador, Medal of Freedom recipient and author. Among South Dakotans, few if any can be called more accomplished.

But his achievements were only half the story. Along the way, he left a legacy in numerous programs, policies and movements.

As chairman of the so-called McGovern Commission, he freed the Democratic presidential nomination process from machine-style elitism and, according to some analyses, paved the way for minority candidates like Barack Obama.

He championed legislation and policies that spawned free and reduced-price school lunches, the Women, Infants and Children program and an international school lunch initiative.

He stood on the right side of the Vietnam War debate.

And perhaps most impressively, especially in the context of modern politics, he came through public life relatively unsullied by scandal.

As great as he was, he was not perfect. Like many people, McGovern’s positive traits also manifested as weaknesses. The pull of the world’s problems and the renown he won in the arena were always seductive calls, and the balance of his life’s scale tipped uneasily between career and family. By his own admission, the scale was too often weighted toward his career. Though he did not seem a particularly bad husband or father, he certainly could be described as absent.

And he made his share of professional blunders, especially during that ill-fated ’72 campaign, when he failed to vet a running mate who ultimately was revealed to have suffered serious mental health issues.

Historians, ultimately, will sort through the various labels applied to McGovern and determine his rightful place in history. He articulated perhaps the best epitaph for himself in 1971 when he launched the presidential candidacy that made him a household name.

“A public figure,” he said, “can perform no greater service than to lay bare the malfunctions of our society, try honestly to confront our problems in all their complexity, and stimulate the search for solutions.”

Whatever else George McGovern was or wasn’t, he was often that — an honest exposer and solver of problems. And that’s something all politicians should aspire to be.

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