Thoughts and Commentary from VOXXI contributors
If you had not known that George McGovern was a U.S. senator, you might have mistaken him for a Peace Corps volunteer working among the poor in South Texas in the 1960s.
He was slender, balding and looked young, with more enthusiasm than the man who later would be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. But he wore a caring look of concern in his eyes, and his rumpled blue work shirt had come from a used clothing store in the Rio Grande Valley.
If any politician ever truly wanted to be a man of the people, it was George McGovern.
It was Bobby Kennedy, the new senator from New York, who was getting all the headlines for the anti-hunger crusade that had begun in the Appalachians, but in 1967 it was McGovern who was quietly doing all the difficult work under the hottest, most unpleasant conditions.
President Kennedy had created the Peace Corps to send volunteers to work in third world countries, so it tells you how bad hunger and poverty were in South Texas that it, too, resembled some banana republic as McGovern tried to make an impact.
“We have a realistic hope of ending poverty,” I recall McGovern saying, “but it requires an equally realistic approach to how we prioritize the money our government spends. We cannot be trying to win a war with no end in sight in Southeast Asia when we are losing the War on Poverty here at home.”
This is the lasting impression I have of McGovern, who died Sunday morning at the age of 90.
I was a young reporter, still in college, when I first met McGovern while writing about the impoverished living conditions of Mexican Americans in South Texas—an area and a people who were always forgotten by the state’s politicians except at election time.
On election years, the patrones on all the ranches in South Texas would round up their “Mexicans,” pay the poll taxes that existed at the time and literally deliver them to the polls on behalf of whichever politician had bought them. In 1948, this was how a young congressman named Lyndon Johnson had won a U.S. senate campaign by 87 votes and earned the disparaging nickname “Landslide Lyndon.”
But this was not McGovern’s way. He virtually ignored the South Texas political bosses who would come by when they heard he was in the area. McGovern did not seem to be a man either destined nor wanting to be president.
He seemed to almost delight in being in the background, and he had no problem surrendering the limelight to Bobby Kennedy who made it no secret he wanted to challenge President Johnson, for whom he had little love, for the party’s 1968 nomination.
George McGovern, in fact, might never have thought about running for president had it not been for Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 when it appeared he would win the Democratic nomination and form the way that year’s Democratic National Convention turned into an embarrassing debacle with police attacking anti-Vietnam War protesters on the city’s streets.
In the aftermath of 1968, McGovern immersed himself in rewriting the party’s rules through what became known as the McGovern Commission. As it turned out, though, the 1972 Democratic primaries became a political killing field with all the party’s presidential frontrunners falling by the wayside.
McGovern wound up with the nomination in a presidential race history will remember for his campaign’s ineptness and the political dirty tricks of Richard Nixon’s disgraced presidency.
McGovern’s supporters spent years protesting he had been the right man, just simply ahead of his time—to which McGovern, in his modest wit, would have little to do with.
“You know, sometimes, when they say you’re ahead of your time,” he loved to say in his later years, “it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.”