Former South Dakota Democratic Sen. George McGovern, who died Sunday, had all manner of evil said about him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He was called unpatriotic, disloyal, an appeaser, and an enabler of communism. Those were the printable slanders.
Many conservatives at the time believed in the "domino theory," that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, all Asia would follow. That proved untrue. McGovern was eventually vindicated in many minds about America's involvement in Vietnam.
I will remember him for something other than his politics. George McGovern was a friend.
After his Senate reelection defeat in 1980, McGovern and I debated on college campuses and in other venues. These debates were always civil because McGovern was a gentleman. After one debate at Butler University in Indianapolis, a fellow conservative invited me to dinner.
"Thank you," I said, "but George and I have dinner plans."
"How can you eat with a man like that?" he said with an equal mix of surprise and disgust.
"Easy," I said. "He's a friend of mine."
This is what is missing from our politics today. If we don't like a person's politics, we reflexively dislike the person.
McGovern practiced "family values" better than some conservatives who merely talk about them. Married to Eleanor for 64 years, until her death in 2007, he exemplified the "family man." Their daughter, Terry, was an alcoholic. When she stumbled out of a Madison, Wis., bar in 1994 and died in the snow, I went to the funeral home and subsequent service. Eleanor hugged me and said, "I'm so glad you came."
In 1998, shortly after President Clinton named him ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, George and I were having lunch at a Washington hotel when an aide arrived with a box of business cards. "Here," he said. "You get the first card from my new assignment."
McGovern understood war better than some conservatives who have never fought in one. During World War II, he flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Perhaps that is why, having seen so much death and destruction, his view of war was "conservative." He believed America should only put American lives at risk when supreme national interests and security are at stake and diplomacy has completely failed.
Some called this "appeasement." McGovern called it humility, which is something that characterized the life of George McGovern. Honorable and principled are two others.
After leaving Congress, McGovern bought a Connecticut inn. He failed to make it work. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business. … I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day." I tell that story when advocating for congressional term limits.
McGovern was proud of his Methodist roots. His father was a Wesleyan minister. He told me he remembered traveling evangelists coming to the family home and hearing George Beverly Shea, the deep-voiced singer for Billy Graham, play their piano and sing. In an interview for my 1999 book, Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can't Save America, he told me he was more of a "social gospel" man, though he said he still believed the central doctrines of the Christian faith.
In our interview, I asked him about the constant bickering between left and right. He replied, "It's the competition of ideas and the creative tension that moves our democratic society … it's the fact that there's always that creative tension between the liberals here and the conservatives there, between the modernists here and the fundamentalists there, that I think makes all of them better."
I shall miss George McGovern as a friend, a fellow American, a patriot, and an example. May he rest in peace.