George McGovern lived to be 90. By any measure, he had a long and productive life. Yet I can’t help but feeling sad—not just because I lost my most treasured friend—but because the world lost a consistently steady and refreshingly liberal voice of sanity and common sense.
To me, George McGovern was the “Atticus Finch” of American politics. Like the main character in Harper Lee’s brilliant novel To Kill A Mockingbird George McGovern spoke the truth even when—especially when—it was uncomfortable.
He spoke the truth about the folly of Vietnam and our excessive military budget. He spoke the truth about corruption in the Nixon White House. And he spoke the truth about the tragedy of hunger in the United States and around the world. He paid a heavy political price for his candor and honesty. But as he always said, “there are worse things than losing an election.” George McGovern never lost his soul and he never betrayed his conscience.
In 1997, when I was being sworn-in as a freshman member of the United States House of Representatives, I asked him to stand by my side as I took the oath of office. During a rather long ceremony leading up to the big moment, I asked him if he had any advice. He gave me the same advice he received when he started out: “If you want to be a good member of Congress you have to get over the fear of losing an election.”
Having just won a close, hard-fought election, I was expecting him to say: “keep your head low” or “don’t make any waves.” But George McGovern believed that serving in Congress was a rare privilege, that it was an opportunity to move the country forward instead of a constant struggle to get oneself re-elected.
I have tried to heed that sage advice as much as possible—although, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t yet completely gotten over the fear of losing an election!
My first encounter with Senator McGovern was from a great distance in 1972. As a 7th grader in Worcester, Massachusetts, I tried mightily to get him elected President of the United States. While he lost 49 states, he did carry Massachusetts.
During my college years, I interned in his Senate office, and then in 1984, I ran his Massachusetts campaign when he tried again for the presidency. I will never forget his powerful appeal to voters to stay true to their own principles and values when he declared, “Don’t throw away your conscience.”
George McGovern was perhaps the most courageous man I’ve ever known. And it was not just because he was a bomber pilot in World War II, fighting against Hitler and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. I admired him for his guts, in being who he was, in conservative South Dakota. To oppose the war in Vietnam was not easy in the early 1960s. Yet, George McGovern’s valiant and sincere position was right, and the voters of his home state sent him to the United States Senate three times.
He came across as a gentle man but he had a spine of steel. He was decent and kind. He wasn’t afraid of the political consequences of his liberalism and never trimmed his sails for the convenience of the moment. His steadfastness used to drive his staff crazy. But every one of them knew they were working for a great man.
Senator McGovern was obsessed with the issue of hunger. He was ashamed that in the richest, most powerful nation on the planet, millions of our fellow citizens don’t have enough to eat. He led the efforts in the Senate—along with Senator Bob Dole—to expand food and nutrition programs.
He also couldn’t tolerate the hundreds of millions of people all around the world who were hungry. I will never forget attending a meeting with the Senator and President Clinton in 2000, when George McGovern proposed an international program aimed at guaranteeing every child at least one nutritious meal a day in a school setting. Bill Clinton listened intently and then said, “Let’s do it.” That was the magic of George McGovern; he could get you to believe that anything was possible. And today, the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program is feeding millions of kids and helping them get an education.
At a recent celebration of his 90th birthday, he told me he wanted to live another 10 years to ensure that hunger on this planet is no more. He had a lot more work to do.
Like Atticus Finch, George McGovern never gave up. He loved his country and dedicated his life fighting for what is “just and noble in human affairs.” The world is going to miss George McGovern. I already do.