Soon, Senator George McGovern, who died earlier this week at the age of ninety, will leave his native state of South Dakota for the nation’s capital one last time. His first move to Washington, at the end of 1956, was as a newly elected Congressman. His funeral in Sioux Falls yesterday was attended by some of the citizens he grew up with in nearby Mitchell. Also present were three of his most eminent colleagues (and brethren among unsuccessful Presidential candidates): Vice-President Joe Biden (who was elected to the United States Senate the same day Sen. McGovern’s Presidential hopes were dashed in 1972); former Senator (and 1972 McGovern campaign manager) Gary Hart; and former Vice-President Walter Mondale, who, in 1984, joined the South Dakotan as the only major-party nominees to lose 49 of 50 states.
(Senator McGovern had a keen sense of self-deprecating humor which was notably manifested when Vice-President Mondale asked him, soon after that election, how long it would take to get over such a landslide defeat. “I’ll let you know when I get there,” was the reply.)
Following the funeral, preparations are underway for Senator McGovern to be laid to rest in Rock Creek Cemetery, in the heart of Washington, next to his wife Eleanor. Among the other notables who rest there are the historian Henry Adams and his wife, whose graves are marked by the famed Augustus Saint-Gaudens statue “Grief;” Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan and Chief Justice Harlan Stone; beloved newscaster Tim Russert; the tart-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth; and the even more tart-tongued novelist Gore Vidal (who hoped to run against President Nixon and Sen. McGovern as the candidate of the short-lived People’s Party, until Dr. Benjamin Spock got its nomination instead).
But George McGovern will stand out as one of two major-party Presidential nominees to be buried in the District of Columbia, the other being President Woodrow Wilson at the National Cathedral. Somehow, it’s fitting that these two Ph.Ds, who started their careers in the field of education before moving to politics to pursue national service in a notably idealistic style, will be a few miles apart.
Senator McGovern received many an eloquent tribute this week but the one that stood out the most, in my judgement, was from former Senator Bob Dole in the pages of the Washington Post. In 1972, as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Sen. Dole labored day and night to defeat the Democratic ticket. But the differences the two men had, as leading figures in their respective parties, were outweighed to a considerable degree by what they had in common.
They were two men born in the flattest plains of the Midwest, just one year and three days apart. They grew up in straitened circumstances even when the rest of America enjoyed prosperity in the 1920s, and skirted the edge of poverty during the Great Depression, witnessing scenes of privation and anguish. After Pearl Harbor they volunteered for service, and by 1944 both were in combat in Italy – Sen. McGovern in the Army Air Force, Sen. Dole in the Army. Both served with valor and courage, the former receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, the latter the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. And both saw civilians suffering from poverty and famine to a terrible degree.
After the war, both men completed their educations and sought a way to do their utmost to end the suffering of hunger. And so it was that, as Sen. Dole describes, they joined forces in the effort to provide food to the starving:
As colleagues in the 1970s on the Senate Hunger and Human Needs Committee, we worked together to reform the Food Stamp Program, expand the domestic school lunch program and establish the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
More than a quarter-century later, with political ambitions long behind us, we joined together again. Soon after President Bill Clinton named George ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 1998, he called to ask for my help in strengthening global school feeding, nutrition and education programs. We jointly proposed a program to provide poor children with meals at schools in countries throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. In 2000, President Clinton authorized a two-year pilot program based on our proposal, and in 2002, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. Since its inception, the program has provided meals to 22 million children in 41 countries.
Sen. Dole reminds his readers that his old friend was always ready to set aside partisanship, and especially ready to offer comfort in times of sorrow:
When I learned that George McGovern was nearing the end of his remarkable life, I couldn’t help but think back to the day in June 1993 when both of us attended the funeral of former first lady Pat Nixon, in Yorba Linda, Calif. After the service, George was asked by a reporter why he should honor the wife of the man whose alleged dirty tricks had kept him out of the White House. He replied, “You can’t keep on campaigning forever.”
That classy remark was typical of George, a true gentleman who was one of the finest public servants I had the privilege to know.
Sen. Dole concludes his article:
In recent years, George and I had several occasions to get together and reflect on our lives, our political careers and our respective presidential campaigns. No matter how many times we replayed it, he never did defeat President Nixon and I never did defeat Bill Clinton. We agreed, however, that the greatest of life’s blessings cannot be counted in electoral votes.
In 2008, George and I were humbled to be named the co-recipients of the World Food Prize. As we were called on stage to accept the award, we once again reached across the aisle, walking to the podium literally arm-in-arm. I began my acceptance remarks by saying that “The good news is that we finally won something. It proves that you should never give up.”
Also noteworthy, in the avalanche of articles and commentary about Sen. McGovern’s passing, was this transcript of a 1997 interview he did with Chuck Raasch of Gannett News Service (GNS):
GNS: You made up with Richard Nixon, didn’t you?
McGOVERN: In ’84, 10 years after he resigned, I went to see him in New York. It was in January. Just about exactly 10 years from the time he resigned the office.
GNS: Why did you do that?
McGOVERN: I went up there to see if he would join with me in urging (President Ronald) Reagan to go to the summit with the Russians. Reagan had been in the White House for four years. I knew that Nixon’s private view was that the president of the United States should never let a year go by without a summit meeting directly with the Soviet leader. He felt that was in our national security interest. That is one thing he felt deeply about, that the two superpowers had to talk to each other. And so after four years had gone by … without any summit conference, I went to see if Nixon would join with me. It was not so much a heal-the-wounds type of thing as it was just a move on my part that I thought would capture a lot of attention. Here you had two former contenders joining, and I thought it might do some good. He thought seriously about it for awhile and decided he just couldn’t do it in terms of his relationship to Reagan. And from that point on he would send me copies of his books. I went to Mrs. Nixon’s funeral and I went to Nixon’s funeral. There weren’t a lot of sessions with him.
GNS: Do you remember anything about that first meeting in 1984?
McGOVERN: I remember he was much more relaxed than I had ever seen him […] He seemed to be more at peace with himself, more candid and open with his comments. I had always found him rather nervous and uptight in previous contacts. But this time he seemed to be relaxed and glad to see me and pleased that I had consulted with him. It turns out it was his 70th birthday and Reagan had just gotten off the telephone congratulating him when I walked in. So that was one reason why it was difficult for him to join in implicit criticism of the commander in chief.
Sen. McGovern, a Methodist minister’s son, was a strong believer in those words of Isaiah 1:18, so often quoted by President Lyndon B. Johnson – “Come, let us reason together, saith the Lord” – and his collaboration with Sen. Dole, and his readiness to meet with the man who had so thoroughly defeated him at the polls, shows how much he believed in living his life in the spirit of brotherhood, courtesy, and reconciliation.