In the South Dakota of my youth, the population was sparse but close-knit. U.S. Sen. George McGovern was on a first-name, stop-by-anytime basis with local newspaper editors. And the staunchly Republican editor who was my boss taught the office’s pet cockatoo to scream “McGovern is a no-no” periodically throughout the day.
Whenever in later years I encountered McGovern, who died early Sunday at age 90, we laughed about Virgil Smith’s opinionated bird.
McGovern may have been a presidential candidate and global elder statesman. But he was also forever a small-town South Dakotan, unassuming and personable. He held world leaders and neighbors in equal esteem.
The Methodist preacher’s son was a decent man who held fast to belief in the decency and dignity of all people. In that respect, he was an exponent of the prairie progressivism that infused both of Minnesota’s major political parties in the mid-20th century. McGovern would have agreed with both DFLer Hubert Humphrey (his next-door neighbor in suburban Maryland) and Republican Elmer L. Andersen that government’s rightful role is to promote equal opportunity and the general welfare – and that if government does that job well, both individuals and society will flourish.
McGovern kept that optimistic ideal at the core of his politics, even though he was personally quite familiar with human nature’s darker side. He saw the horror of World War II, and had a bomber pilot’s Distinguished Flying Cross to show for it. He watched a daughter lose her battle with alcoholism. A son of the Dust Bowl, he identified with the impoverished and downtrodden, and worked well into old age to prevent hunger around the world.
He had the dubious distinction of being the only Democratic presidential candidate since 1960 who did not win Minnesota’s Electoral College votes. Minnesota went with Richard Nixon that year.
Less than two years later, Nixon was shamed out of office by the Watergate scandal, and many Minnesota vehicle bumpers proudly sported the message: “Don’t blame me. I voted for McGovern.” Those bumper stickers had a long life. George McGovern was the kind of public servant who didn’t let his backers down.