The greatest strength of George McGovern and certainly the reason conservative Republican South Dakota sent him twice to the House of Representatives and three times to the Senate, was his unflinching character. All the time I knew him—including during the period when I served as his campaign manager in his bid for the presidency in 1972—I never knew him to trim on an issue, or compromise in pursuit of office. Whether the issue was human rights, agricultural policy or war and peace, there was never any doubt where he stood. He was truly a “prairie populist,” as Time called him on its 1972 convention cover, a product of his religious upbringing and his Plains heritage—always seeking to find the ordinary citizen and to defend his rights and his values.
I first got to know McGovern while I was serving as Sen. Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, but I was drawn to work for him in 1972 because he was the only Democratic candidate who was totally against the war in Vietnam. (McGovern famously declared, in a passionate anti-war speech in the Senate, “this chamber reeks of blood.”) I volunteered for his primary campaign when he stood at 1 percent in the polls, doubling the size of his staff by joining Gary Hart.
It was a mark of his character—and his South Dakota childhood and upbringing in a devout family—that when McGovern later faced President Richard Nixon in the general election, he steadily resisted my entreaties, and those of others, to refer, even if vaguely, to his war record. There is no doubt that his military service was impressive: In 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps and by the end of the war he had piloted a B-24 bomber in more than 25 flights over Germany, and earned four Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. But he said he thought it sounded like “bragging,” and besides, he didn't see how his service as a soldier was relevant to his pursuit of the country's highest civilian office. All this, in the face of an opponent who called him “soft” on defense and misleadingly boosted his own Navy record (which included no combat experience at all.)
McGovern, unlike the Kennedys, did not naturally cultivate an atmosphere of glamour, but their common notions of service and justice granted them a deep affinity. Robert Kennedy had once described George McGovern (D-SD) as “the most decent man in the Senate,” and when he arrived at a rally in 1968 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota as part of his own campaign for the presidency, Senator McGovern described him, in Biblical terms befitting his heritage as the son of a local minister, as “wise as a serpent and brave as a lion.” McGovern had also served in the administration of John F. Kennedy as the first Director of the Food for Peace program. The fight to end hunger subsequently became a lifelong crusade for McGovern. McGovern, true to his ideals, campaigned to the end against world hunger, whether as a U.S. Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture mission at the U.N. or later as co-chairman with Sen. Robert Dole in an international anti-hunger campaign.
Many liberals who remember George McGovern's 1972 campaign will always think of him as “the best President we never had.” But for his ill-advised choice of Sen. Thomas Eagleton, he might well have remained the standard-bearer for liberalism after what would have been a close defeat by Nixon. (In which case, he almost certainly would have become our Chief Executive in 1976 rather than Jimmy Carter.) Still, his achievements as a man of rare idealism speaks for itself. His obituaries might well dwell on his defeat in 1972, but those of who knew him—and loved him—are confident that history will cast his legacy in tones much more triumphant.