Former senator and presidential nominee George McGovern bequeaths a leadership legacy of character and civility.
His example prompts reflection for our time.
A Life of Service
McGovern’s early and outspoken opposition to American prosecution of the Vietnam War–and his political opponents’ effectiveness in characterizing it–meant that many people had no idea of his demonstrated courage in combat. As historian Stephen Ambrose recounted in The Wild Blue, McGovern was a genuine war hero. At the age of 22 he flew 35 missions over Germany, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
A golden thread in his career was his leadership in connecting the unparalleled productivity of American agriculture with the perennial international scourge of hunger and malnutrition. This included his service in the Kennedy administration as the first director of Food for Peace, his subsequent legislative advocacy, as well as United Nations appointments in the Clinton administration.
Character in Electoral Politics
The magnitude of McGovern’s defeat by Richard Nixon in 1972 obscures what was in many respects a successful political career. McGovern, always a man of the left, overcame steep odds in achieving and holding a U.S. House seat in South Dakota in the 1950s. Ultimately, after running a surprisingly close race against longtime incumbent Senator Karl Mundt in 1960, he won an open senate seat by a razor’s edge in 1962.
McGovern’s victories in a predominantly conservative and Republican state were in no small part a result of political skill, including methodical attention to the workaday mechanics, the ground game. Like Woodrow Wilson, he was a PhD who would stoop to conquer.
McGovern’s career is emblematic of a phenomenon now vanishing from American politics: the capacity of a candidate, in a small state, to win statewide office on the basis of personal character. Without being immune to interest group politics, McGovern and others like him often achieved greater independence than is the norm today. As a result, they played an important role in resolving conflicts implicating various regional and national interests. His collaboration with conservative Senator Robert Dole, for example, on food issues is legendary.
It is not accidental that McGovern’s Senate career was cut short in the historic 1980 election, when he sought a fourth term. In retrospect, one recognizes not only that his brand of liberalism was being repudiated in the Reagan landslide. His defeat also marked the emergence of independent campaign committees which, over time, have become a favored tool of special interest groups of all kinds, from left and right. As a practical matter, there is now much less running room for candidates in smaller states to prevail on the basis of their individual efforts, independent of national interest group influence.
McGovern’s Leadership Legacy
Many of McGovern’s policy prescriptions were, in this observer’s reckoning, outdated or wrongheaded. Yet, aspects of his approach to leadership endure.
McGovern’s emergence as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 1972 was unlikely. He prevailed against opponents who may well have been better equipped, by experience or temperament, for the presidency. His nomination was a result, in part, of his status as a prophet among politicians at a time when the political process was discredited. McGovern had been an early voice asserting the futility of the Vietnam War, expounding its toll on America. His nomination was also an extension of his early experience as executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party. He not only made a point of knowing the arcane party rules; his campaign rewrote the rules. In the doing, amid general election defeat, his work was pivotal in altering the course of the Democratic Party.
At the same time, McGovern exhibited civility with those on the other side. This may not have come naturally, which suggests it was an accomplishment. It was in-character for him to be among the mourners at William F. Buckley, Jr.’s memorial mass in 2008.
The courage and service that impelled McGovern to war heroism would later be seen in his example of civility. Civility calls upon moral courage, which McGovern also achieved.
Considered in their totality, there are more positive lessons from George McGovern’s leadership legacy, despite his historic 1972 defeat, than from Richard Nixon’s, despite his electoral dominance.
George McGovern | Character and Civility