How do you take the measure of a man's life? By the standard usually applied to George McGovern, he was one of America's biggest losers. After all, in 1972, he lost 49 of 50 states. But, when I was finishing a masters degree at the University of North Carolina in the summer of 1974 -- when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency -- I began each day passing by a car which bore Massachusetts plates and a bumper sticker which read, "Don't Blame Me." It seems to me that the real losers of the 1972 election were the American people.
It wasn't that McGovern didn't make mistakes. After all, he had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. But, a year later, he acknowledged that mistake:
“We are fighting a determined army of guerrillas that seems to enjoy the cooperation of the countryside and that grow[s] stronger in the face of foreign intervention,” he said in a widely noticed Jan. 15, 1965, Senate speech that marked him as the leading Senate pacifist. “We are further away from victory over the guerrilla forces in Vietnam today than we were a decade ago.” He then laid out a five-point program for withdrawal from the war.
McGovern's opposition to the war was based on experience and knowledge. In World War II, he piloted a B 24 bomber over Europe on 35 missions. And he held a doctorate in American History from Northwestern University.
The son of a Methodist minister, who was raised on the Social Gospel, McGovern took seriously Christ's command to feed the poor:
In 2001, Sen. McGovern was appointed the first U.N. global ambassador on hunger and published “The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time,” in which he proposed a plan to alleviate world hunger by 2030. In 2008, he and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) shared a $250,000 award from the World Food Prize Foundation for their work combating hunger among children.
He was a man who had known personal tragedy. His alcoholic daughter, Theresa, collapsed and died in the snows of Wisconsin in 1994. He understood pain, disappointment and defeat.
And what of that defeat in 1972? Consider who worked with him on that campaign: Bill and Hilary Clinton were there. So were Gary Hart, Bob Schrum, Sandy Berger and John Podesta. If one measures a life, not by the number of battles a person wins or loses, but by what he or she leaves the next generation, then George McGovern's journey on this planet was, indeed, time well spent.
This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.