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Much is being made, and well it should be, of the late Senator George McGovern’s opposition to the war in Vietnam. A decorated World War II bomber pilot who landed more than one plane that was engulfed in flames, he became the leading voice against the war because he’d had to wage one, but still had to suffer the taunting of fools who questioned his service.
He was the son of a Methodist minister, who never lost his South Dakota decent, but one time he did lean in to a heckling kid on the other side of an airport chain link fence to whisper, “You can kiss my – ” well, you know.
He bumbled his run for president in 1972 by firing his running mate Thomas Eagleton, after it was revealed Eagleton had had electroshock therapy in the ’60s.
Critics painted McGovern as lacking a spine. But it’s hard to imagine what they might have said about a candidate who admitted mental health issues.
In 2005, McGovern said he shouldn’t have fired Eagleton, but “I didn’t know a damn thing about mental illness,” he said, “and neither did anyone around me.”
He stood firm against the war. In September 1970, he wrote an amendment to end it and made and impassioned speech from the Senate floor, criticizing those who opposed him:
“Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.”
Afterwards the Senate was silent. One lawmaker told McGovern he was offended, to which McGovern replied, “that was my intent.”
The amendment was defeated, and two years later in 1972 McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts to Richard Nixon. McGovern tried to draw attention to the corruption of the Nixon White House, but the full extent of the Watergate scandal didn’t come out until after the election. Hence, the “Don’t Blame Me – I’m From Massachusetts” bumper stickers.
But all of this is not what I remember about George McGovern.
He was the guest speaker at a huge fundraiser for the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter here in Boston.
You could have heard a pin drop as he talked about how in 1994, his daughter Terry stumbled out of a bar into a snowbank in Madison, Wisconsin, where she froze to death, and about his family’s painful battle to pull her back from the abyss.
He also talked privately with people afterwards, holding people, shedding tears. No one talked about Vietnam.
Which reminds me of a story I reported in 1986 on the then-new movement called “adult children of alcohol,” mid-age adults realizing the impact of their parents drinking on them.
We spoke with Janet Woititz of Rutgers’ Center of Alcohol Studies. The story was the last one that day on NBC Nightly News. The first was the bombing of Libya by U.S. forces in response to the Libyan bombing of a Berlin discotheque. It was a big story, freighted with the possibility of deeper military involvement.
And yet I got a call from a colleague right after the show saying that the NBC switchboard had been ringing off the hook with calls about the story on family alcoholism. I called Janet Woititz with the news and she said “well of course. War is horrible. But people understand they are far more likely to lose loved ones to alcoholism than to Moammar Gadhafi.”
This past July, an obituary jumped off the pages. George McGovern had lost a second child, his only son, at the age of 60, to alcoholism. I was surprised it didn’t mention his daughter Terry, and it didn’t get bigger play, but there is a good chance the copywriter didn’t know who the McGoverns were.
Steve McGovern’s sister Ann was quoted saying, “Steve had a long struggle with alcoholism. We will all miss him deeply, but are grateful that he is now at peace.”
His father fought to save other people’s children from war, to save his own children from battles on the home front.
I am hoping he’s at peace as well.
George McGovern died early Sunday at 90.
His final public appearance was this past October when he introduced his recorded narration for Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra.
Click the audio at the top of this page to hear a full three minutes of the narration – more than we were able to play on the show.
We are grateful the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra shared that with us.
For additional coverage, here’s our interview about McGovern’s role in changing the presidential nominating process: