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Senator George McGovern of South Dakota a Statesman Always

Former Senator George McGovern has entered hospice care. He is 90 years old. During the past few years there have been medical issues: exhaustion and falls.

I saw him a few weeks ago at the State Theatre gift event given by the Henkin family. George was in a suit, as always. When his name was mentioned during Sylvia Henkin’s presentation, he laughed along with the rest of us. He looked thinner, but not unhealthy. Had good skin color, and while not standing as tall as his younger years, still possessed that aura which attracts people.

Met the Senator when he was campaigning for President in 1972. I was 25, new to South Dakota, and was working at a small locally owned radio station. Had never been close to a U.S. Senator, much less a presidential candidate. He impressed me, even though our political philosophies were very different. On election night in 1972, I was hired by Mutual broadcasting Company to broadcast from the Senators election party at the Sioux Falls Coliseum. It was a highlight of my life to be in the room on such an important occasion. McGovern didn’t carry South Dakota or 48 others states. He only won in Massachusetts. That night a defeated man, with his wife beside him spoke eloquently about politics, this country and the future. He lost, but he didn’t play the role of loser.

Interviewed him many times over the years, during his last Senate campaign, after the release of “Terry” the book about his alcoholic daughter and her death, and his collaboration with former Senator Bob Dole, conservative Republican from Kansas, to feed the poor and educate women in foreign lands. He would probably not consider me a part of any of his political or social circles, but I feel that my contacts over the years allow me to make these observations:

George McGovern is a very kind man. Even when others have taken shots at him for his words or beliefs, he put his best foot forward and kept to the high road.

Many criticized his stance on Vietnam, coming close to accusing him of treason. Yet I think his World War Two bombing pilot experiences qualified him more than many of his critics to offer his thoughts and feelings about the conduct of the war and our reasons for being there. I didn’t agree with him at the time, but a fair judgement by history will show how the politicians got us in without a plan and without a commitment to win, and did their best to manipulate the media and us, to believe things were much different than they were. .

There are not many statesmen left in this country. George McGovern is a statesmen and he was when he held the office. Not many elected officials today are referred to in that way. Statesmen are literally a dying breed. Former Senator of Pennsylvania, Arlen Spector, died on Sunday.  In Washington we have thrown out elected officials of both parties, willing to intelligently discuss the issues and compromise to move towards solutions.

After leaving office, McGovern was still the subject of criticism. His stint at Northwestern University was attacked because he “went back east to be with his people.”

Like all of us George McGovern is human, with flaws and faults. However, he chose to speak up when others were silent. He chose to champion the poor, hungry, and uneducated, both here and around the world. He hasn’t just talked about it. He has done, the hard work to make changes, without fanfare, adulation, money, or fame. He chose to fix those problems because, from his life experiences, they were the right thing to do.

George McGovern never won a national popularity contest, In his home state of South Dakota, he probably wouldn’t win one now. However, in my opinion he is deserving of our respect and admiration. He changed South Dakota politics. He changed public discussion on national issues. He chose to enter the game, take his lumps, win some lose some.  Today most politicians only want to play the game if they know they will win. George McGovern plays the game because he believes the game is part of the journey and worth the effort.

As we think about his 90 years on the planet, I hope we remember and reflect on the risks he took to protect us, lead us, and educate us.

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