Sunday, October 21, 2012
Death of a Good Guy
I knew when I heard that George McGovern was in hospice care that he was not long for this world.
According to reports Wednesday afternoon, the 90–year–old was "unresponsive" at a hospice center in South Dakota, the state he represented in Washington.
He lingered for a few days — never, to my knowledge, regaining responsiveness — and died earlier today.
History — or destiny or fate or whatever you want to call it — had an unusual plan for George McGovern's life. He was a real long shot to win his party's nomination, but he did — albeit with the help of Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks" squad.
But then he went down in flames in the 1972 general election. He lost every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia for a total of 17 electoral votes. It was the most one–sided election in 36 years — and, frankly, I doubted I would ever see its like again.
Twelve years later, though, Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale. Reagan didn't receive as much of the popular vote (percentage–wise, that is) as Nixon did, but he held Mondale to fewer electoral votes than Nixon did against McGovern.
I heard that Mondale spoke to McGovern after the 1984 election and asked McGovern how long it took to get over a landslide loss. "I'll let you know when I get there," McGovern assured him.
(I don't know if McGovern kept that promise, but Bob Greene writes at CNN.com that he did overcome that massive landslide loss — although perhaps not in the way one might expect. Greene covered McGovern's 1972 campaign as a young reporter. His assessment of the man? "[H]e was an awfully good guy.")
Whenever I heard about McGovern over the years, I always thought of Mom. She was a diehard supporter of McGovern — in part because she agreed with him and admired his stance against the Vietnam War but also in part, I'm sure, because she despised Nixon.
In the fall of 1972, Mom went door to door in our county in central Arkansas, ringing doorbells for McGovern. I went with her on several occasions. Many doors were slammed in our faces so I guess she wasn't surprised when Arkansas voted better than 2–to–1 against McGovern that year.
Mom followed the news so I'm convinced she knew McGovern wouldn't be victorious. She had seen the public opinion polls.
(And, even though Greene recalled that McGovern confessed to being baffled by the discrepancy between what the polls were saying and what he was seeing on the campaign trail, I always thought McGovern must have known. My memory of that time is that everyone knew how the election was going to turn out.)
Mom never spoke to me about it, but I'm quite sure she knew what was coming. Hell, even I knew what was coming, and I was just a young boy.
I've been reliving those days this year. 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break–in and McGovern's improbable march to the Democratic nomination.
I shook hands with McGovern twice that year. He made airport stops in Little Rock a few weeks before the Democratic convention that summer and again a few weeks before the general election that fall, and Mom and I were there on both occasions.
I worked my way up to spots where I was sure to be able to shake his hand when he came through — and I did, both times, but we didn't exchange any words other than cursory greetings.
Twenty years later, though, we did. I was in my first semester of teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, and McGovern came to the campus to deliver a speech about two weeks before the 1992 election.
When he finished speaking, I practically sprinted from my seat to greet him as he stepped from the stage.
"Senator," I said to him, "I'm sure you don't remember me, but I shook your hand at the Little Rock airport in 1972."
McGovern smiled and nodded. "I remember stopping in Little Rock," he replied, "and I remember that your governor, Dale Bumpers, told me we were going to carry Arkansas in the election!"
And we chuckled. We both knew how far he had been from even thinking about the possibility of winning Arkansas — much less actually winning it — even if he never said so publicly. Bumpers was one of McGovern's colleagues for the last six years of his Senate career. We both knew what a spin artist he was.
At that point, McGovern's attention was drawn away from me to others who wanted to shake his hand and speak with him briefly. I never spoke to him or shook his hand again.
As an adult, I didn't always agree with McGovern, and, on the occasion of his death, it has been mostly the notable figures from McGovern's own party who have offered tributes to him, but even Newt Gingrich had something nice to say.
McGovern was, he said, "[j]ust a great guy."