A man of peace, proud of his service

Published Oct. 26, 2012

The Daily Republic

George McGovern was a long way from home. Slow, slight and frail, he was wearing jeans and a blazer. It was uptown Mitchell, and I suspected he was headed back to his house, all the way over near Dakota Wesleyan.

So I doubled back around the block, headed him off at a street corner and introduced myself, although I’d met him numerous times.

“Senator,” I asked, “do you need a ride?”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

That was about a year ago, and I figured right then that it would be my last meeting with McGovern, who died Sunday at the age of 90. But I still marveled that this old, old man was so independent that he planned to trek on foot from uptown all the way back to his home, a mile or two away.

Really, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see him out walking on his own.

He had traveled the world. He constantly was jetting off to Florida and other far-off places. I once spent a couple of days with McGovern on a bus tour of South Dakota. It wasn’t long ago that he had a mishap while driving himself through Wisconsin.

One sleepless night at 3 or 4 in the morning, I caught a glimpse of McGovern on C-SPAN, promoting one of his books. I grabbed a notebook, noted the date and wrote down his comments.

It was January 2006, and he was in a bookstore in Washington, D.C. He didn’t flinch when a younger man confronted him about McGovern’s constant talk of peace, despite his service as a bomber pilot during World War II.

Now, I’ve nearly memorized Stephen Ambrose’s “Wild Blue,” which details many of McGovern’s 35 missions against Nazi Germany. And being a history buff, I always got a little giddy around McGovern, knowing he bravely helped the Greatest Generation win that terrible conflict.

So I was offended when the guy in the bookstore said McGovern could be considered a war criminal for killing civilians with those bombs he dropped on Germany.

McGovern’s answer was cool, as usual.

“I believed with all my heart (in America’s efforts in World War II),” he replied. “I came to the conclusion that Hitler … had to be stopped. Whichever part I played in smashing his war machine, I was proud of that. It was the last war I believed in.”

He also said, “I don’t call soldiers war criminals.”

I’ll always remember that, and in the coming years, I plan to recall McGovern not necessarily for his politics, but for his courageous service in World War II. I always wished I could have talked about it with him, but I never got around to it.

McGovern told me several times that The Daily Republic was his “favorite paper,” although I suspect he said that a few times about some other publications, too. He was buddies with USA Today founder Al Neuharth, after all.

Yet even with that favored status, the time never seemed right to talk about war.

A couple of years ago, a secretary at The Daily Republic called into my office to tell me that Sen. McGovern was here to see me. I straightened up my desk, tightened my necktie and eagerly went to greet him.

But he only handed me a menu from a new restaurant in town. He suggested we do a story on the place, told me he couldn’t stay and left.

As reporters, national analysts and celebrities nationwide pen their poignant remembrances this week, it’s a bit odd to admit that despite my longevity here, I personally had no great moments or in-depth conversations with McGovern. I’m not even sure he recognized me when I drove him home that day last year.

And when I had him to myself for those five minutes in my car, we didn’t talk about much more than the weather.

I instantly regretted that.

I simply dropped him in his driveway, drove back to work and matter-of-factly told a co-worker I had just had my last visit with the old pilot.

I should have thanked him for bombing the Nazis and told him he is anything but a war criminal.