I met Democratic presidential nominee Sen. George McGovern in 1972, when I worked in his campaign in Montana. I didn’t know what to say. “Just keep telling the truth,” I blurted. And he did, that year, and in all the years since.
During the ’72 campaign, Republicans did more than swift-boat McGovern. They sent henchmen to the National Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate complex to find anything that would discredit an honest, smart historian, an American hero during World War II. But like my other role model Howard Zinn, another historian who became an anti-war advocate (not a pacifist) precisely because he had been a bombardier, McGovern spent the rest of his life speaking out against war.
In 2004, McGovern attended the Democratic Convention in Boston where Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was nominated for president. Kerry, who went to war in Vietnam, coming home in 1971 to testify before Congress against the war. At that time, in what became a famous anti-war line, he pleaded, “How can you ask the last man to die in a war that was a mistake?”
I don’t know if McGovern spoke with Kerry in 2004 about defending his war record. If he did, it didn’t matter. Bush, Cheney and the evil genius Karl Rove manipulated Kerry’s service to make him sound like a French-loving, cosmopolitan weenie.
And Kerry, unfortunately, stood on the Senate floor in 2002 to defend W’s macho invasion of Iraq.
McGovern never swerved from his abhorrence of war. And he kept writing, mostly about history. I heard him speak about his book on Lincoln in Tucson around five years ago. I didn’t say anything to him then; 2004 was enough. I was on my way to Maine and had received press credentials to cover the Boston Democratic convention.
When I heard that McGovern was sitting in the South Dakota delegation, I ran over and got to sit down with him and chat for a few minutes. I thanked him for his honesty again — 32 years after driving back east from Montana, proud of my little red Toyota’s Massachusetts license plate (the only state McGovern won in 1972, along with the District of Columbia). “Don’t blame me. I’m from Massachusetts,” proclaimed my bumper sticker.
At the 2004 convention, McGovern took my hand in his, smiled at me, and said, “We didn’t win but my conscience is clear.”
This week I’ll be wearing my “McGovern President ’72” button, in memory of a true hero.